You wouldn’t know it from tuning in the radio dial, but country music is alive and well. Quite well in fact, if the debut Cow Island Music release from J.P. Harris and the Tough Choices is any indication. I actually did a double take when I read “debut album” in the press sheet that came with I’ll Keep Calling. What I heard coming from the speakers was the kind of tightly crafted, authentic honky tonk swing that’s been missing from the Nashville Top 40 for decades now.
According to his bio, the amply bearded J.P. Harris (southern born but raised in the Northeast) has been hitting the road hard since he was a teenager. The tunes on I’ll Keep Calling reflect this experience, demonstrating solid musicianship and songwriting that while grounded in classic country themes, also showcase Harris as a unique talent in his own right. The album opener “Two for the Road” is a timeless ode to drinking away heartache, harkening back to the tear in Hank Williams’ beer. It sets the tone for the rest of the album, which deals in the kinds of hard living themes that have traditionally given country music its widespread appeal.
More than just a vehicle for Harris’s songwriting, the Tough Choices – including Eric Fey on bass, Glenn fields on drums, Asa Brosius on pedal steel, and Chris Hartway on lead guitar – are a first class country western outfit, shifting seamlessly between country-politan swing (“Take it Back”), slow-burning ballads (“Just Your Memory”), and rock-tinged truck driving anthems (“Gear Jammin’ Daddy”). In classic country fashion, the band members are given ample room to demonstrate their chops, but never too much that it distracts from the song.
I’ll Keep Calling keeps up the pace throughout, and ends on “Take it All” with one of my favorite lines from the album: “I don’t care about our liquid assets; you know I drank them all on the day you closed the book.” I’ll Keep Calling is classic without being derivative, clever without ever being cute, and easily earns a spot on my shortlist of favorite releases so far in 2012. It’s worth noting that J.P. Harris recently relocated to Nashville; here’s to hoping that some of his character rubs off on the Music City, and not vice versa.
J.P. Harris and the Tough Choices perform “Two for the Road” on Music City Roots.