By Dale Henry Geist
Jaimee Harris is, ultimately, a woman of faith. It’s a complex and hard-won faith that has put her in a position, while still in her early 30s, to stand firmly atop the mountain she’s climbed and look back down the rocky trail, as she does to striking effect on her new album, Boomerang Town, out today, February 17, via Thirty Tigers.
Harris describes Boomerang Town as a cycle. (“You can start with ‘Boomerang Town’ and end on ‘Missing Someone,’ or you can start with ‘Missing Someone’ and end on ‘Love Is Gonna Come Again,’ and so on.”) As I discovered in a wide-ranging 80-minute Zoom call, this formulation is typical of Harris: when she’s on the trail of an idea, experiences, memories, thoughts and feelings jostle until they coalesce into a fully-realized image.
In our very first exchange, she established two of her most salient traits: how her mind is constantly synthesizing her experiences into song; and the faith I spoke of earlier: that this work is worth it, because we – and she – can be redeemed by song. In Boomerang Town, these traits have allowed her to make sense of her chaotic past in a form that anyone can draw inspiration from.
But I hadn’t even gotten to Boomerang Town yet.
So Lonesome She Could Cry
The night before we talked, Harris had posted a video of herself singing the quintessential Hank Williams weeper, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” I asked her why.
“A few days ago I had my first gig as a solo artist doing a 90 minute set. And I psyched myself out really early and got really nervous. I bombed. I didn’t pace it well. I said things I didn’t mean to say, and then I became self-conscious and this thing happened where instead of being in the flow of the show, it was like I was watching myself doing the show, and that’s never a good place to be.”
That was Ingredient One.
The next day, she finds herself in Montgomery, Alabama, the birthplace of the immortal Hank Williams. That’s Ingredient Two.
Ingredient Three: Harris visits The Legacy Museum, which displays the history of slavery and racism in America. Harris described to me the immersive journey all visitors take, ending with stalls that used to house slaves awaiting auction, populated by holograms. That exhibit is accompanied by the sound of women singing.
“And I sat down in front of that hologram and I lost it. I started crying and crying and crying and crying.”
Ingredient Four: a memory, recovered.
“And as I was sitting there, I thought, wow, how selfish was I when I was in jail? Someone who’s about to be ripped away from their family, or maybe already has multiple times, being auctioned [and singing.] And when I was in jail, I didn’t have it in me to sing? Like, where does that hope come from? You know, how weak am I?”
She’d been locked up for four days, and was numbed out. Then, after asking to make a phone call, she was verbally abused by a guard. It opened the floodgates: a deluge of tears. She’d never forgotten that part. But something else came back to her as she sat there weeping on that museum bench:
“After I cried, I started humming. I had completely forgotten about that. I kept humming Townes van Zant’s ‘If I Needed You.’ And then, ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.’”
Combine ingredients in the pot of Harris’ creative imagination, stir, and bake in a landmark of American literature: The Fitz, home of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, now a b’n’b in Montgomery, where Harris was staying that night. What came out was a flash of insight – and a song.
“What happened in Mobile [when she ‘bombed’] is I was self-conscious and I was selfish. I always feel like I’m able to do a better job when I’m being of service – if I can really remember that it’s not about me, it’s never about me. It’s always about the songs, and the songs going out and doing what the songs can do and being of service. Then I think it’s easier to be in the flow of what’s happening on stage. I know I was so deeply moved by that experience of watching a hologram sing that it brought me to tears. It was just a reminder: be of service, be of service, be of service.”
That’s the recipe for her version of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” (Which is, not incidentally, heartbreaking.) It’s characteristic of Harris that it should be accompanied by a moment of artistic growth.
Twin Pillars of Faith
If it’s not clear yet, Jaimee Harris is fueled by faith. There’s her Christian faith, the teachings she grew up with, some of which she’s retained, some discarded. And there’s her faith in art.
We spent a few minutes talking about some of her heroes. How she’s drawn inspiration from watching Willie Nelson go out and play a show right after his beloved sister, Bobbie, passed away; how David Bowie and her dear friend and mentor Jimmy LaFave were making art even as they knew their days were dwindling.
“You know, how could you do that? And it’s like, oh, of course! This is what we know how to do. This is where we find our comfort. How could we not do this?”
It’s all connected. That’s what you discover when you spend time with Jaimee. She has been kind enough to allow Country Queer to premiere the video for “Fall (Devin’s Song),” a mother’s lament on what should have been her son’s graduation day, had he not been killed in a gun accident. It’s based on the story of one of Harris’ classmates.
Harris said that “Fall” has been able to open the door to conversations about gun violence, because it’s a story everyone can feel: a mother’s grief at the loss of her child. “Instead of, ‘Guns are bad, guns are bad’ It’s like, here’s the perspective of a mother who’s lost her son.”
And “Fall” has recently yielded an unexpected moment of healing, the kind that only art can offer. “I played it at that show in Mobile. There was a big fan of Jimmy’s (LaFave) named John Harnessy, and I didn’t realize this, but he had passed away a couple weeks ago, and the last concert that he had bought tickets for was my show in Mobile. And so his whole family came and I happened to play that song, and they, of course, were thinking about their father. These songs – it continues to blow my mind – if I just follow them, they’re able to create so much more meaning than I would ever be capable of comprehending.”
When you have faith in the power of song, it’s all connected.
The Fair and Dark Haired Lad
Here’s what else that faith can do: get you sober. “The Fair and Dark Haired Lad,” a song that personifies alcohol as the seductive lad of the title, proved the key that unlocked Boomerang Town.
“I wrote it with Dirk Powell and Katrina Noelle at a songwriting retreat. Dirk was the guy that came up with the fair and dark haired lad, because he’s a student of folk music and we needed something like the Devil that wasn’t the Devil. And once we got into that, the rest of the song kept rolling really fast.
I already knew when we walked out of the room, regardless of whether it was a quote, hit, or not, that I was gonna record it. Something about completing that song, I knew where I was going with Boomerang Town. That song screwed in the light bulb for me.”
Harris knows addiction. To alcohol. To food. She’s in recovery, and credits music as a major reason.
“‘The Fair and Dark Haired Lad’ was inspired by my grandfather, my dad’s father, who lost his battle with addiction. And my dad got sober when I was eight, so the language of sobriety was spoken in my house. And he would say little things like, “You’re probably gonna be an addict!” I think that that certainly helped me, having that language spoken in my house and seeing that someone could stay sober.”
Just before she got sober, Harris had been introduced to a circle of musicians that she’d long admired. She’d been too deep in her own addiction to notice it at the time, but once sober, she realized that they were all in recovery.
Then there was her own music. “It wasn’t that, ‘Oh, I can’t afford to live and I’m not gonna get outta the criminal justice system and I’ve disappointed my family and burnt bridges’ and all of that. It was like, ‘Oh man, I don’t wanna lose music.’ One of the things that happened is when I got outta jail, I got a call from BettySoo (an Austin-based artist) who I’d just met, and she asked me if I would open a show for her a couple months down the line. And it gave me a goal. Maybe I could stay sober till whenever this gig is. That gave me a very tangible goal that really helped me in early sobriety.”
She quotes the title of a recent book authored by her partner, the esteemed songwriter Mary Gauthier: “Saved By a Song.” “Music has saved me over and over and over and over again. The people I’ve met doing it, the examples I saw in sobriety of being a musician and doing it, the songs themselves. It’s all been a lifeline for me.”
There it is again: for Harris, “art heals” is no cliché. It’s real, if you believe.
The Church Within
“I didn’t even think of myself as leaving the church, I kind of just didn’t go back,” Harris says of her adult relationship with the religion of her youth. Yet its foundational teachings, the New Testament wisdom of Christ, were absorbed so deeply that they remain a part of her.
“Having some sort of faith has really helped me get through difficult times of grief. It’s really helped me stay on the path of sobriety. It’s really things that I learned in the church. Love your neighbor. You know, treat your neighbor with kindness. Help those that have less than you. Be of service. That stuff, I think, is great. Stuff that I’ve really held onto and carried with me from the church upbringing.”
This brings us to “On the Surface,” the oldest song on the album (she wrote it in 2017), and, for my money, the album’s center of gravity, with its devastating refrain, “It’s so easy to love your brother…on the surface.” I suggested that it was a finger-pointing song, an accusation.
Jaimee disagreed. “I interpreted it as not accusing but questioning, because I’m still questioning.”
As is her wont, Jaimee talked about “On the Surface” by relating the experiences that went into the writing of it.
“This was in 2017. The travel ban had gone into effect in January of that year. I had been in Terlingua and I’d hiked St. Helena Canyon. And as you hike the St. Helena Canyon, you can see the Rio Grande, so the idea of being separated from [your family in Mexico], all of it was really, really heavy. And I had been gifted the songwriting workshop at Eliza Gilkyson’s house with Eliza and Gretchen (Peters) and Mary (Gauthier), where Mary and I met, and I was planning on just going straight there.”
But the death, a few months earlier, of her friend and mentor Jimmy LaFave had resulted in an unexpected invitation to pay tribute to him at an annual Woody Guthrie festival in Okemah, Oklahoma. There, she wondered whether some of the people LaFave had introduced her to honestly accepted her as an artist, or had just been putting on an act as a favor to Jimmy.
“So I had been in Terlingua on the border, and then I drove up to Woody Guthrie’s hometown, and then drove into New Mexico where Gauthier gave us the prompt [for the workshop], which was the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty. And all of that collided.”
At the same time, she’d been living in ultra-liberal Austin during the 2016 election, and heard a lot of friends blaming Christians for the lurch toward authoritarianism.
“And I started to think, well, I’m a Christian – is that [intolerance] what I believe? That’s not what my mom believes. I don’t think this is right. I was questioning not only myself and my own actions, but that of people from any spectrum of religion/lack of religion/politics/law, whether you’re a conservative news channel or a liberal news channel, and you’re playing a sound byte instead of the whole thing. It’s a questioning of context and how we can use things out of context to weaponize each other, and how we make assumptions about people based on one piece of information: because I’m gay, I must not be interested in the church. Or because someone is religious, they might hate a gay person.”
Once again, diverse experiences were coming together inside Harris’ mind and heart to create a synthesis.
“All of that was coming up for me. I was concerned, and remain concerned, about the lack of nuance in culture and how dangerous that could be. And how taking anything out of context – as I’ve experienced with almost getting canceled on Twitter – is really damaging. It’s damaging in the online world, it’s damaging in a personal world, it’s damaging on a political level and any way that you can imagine it. And so I don’t see it as being accusatory. I see it as questioning motives.”
“I just have this belief: not anyone is all bad, all good, all the one word that they said, all one tweet that they sent, one decision that they made. It’s so much more complex than that. And I think allowing for nuance and context is essential to coexisting peacefully.”
That’s the work that “On the Surface” is meant to do, and it does that work beautifully.
Jaimee Harris’ new album is rife with longing and regret, for chances not taken and for crapshoots that didn’t pan out. But by making that fearless deep-dive into the human heart, she keeps coming up with treasure, treasure which only has value when it’s shared with us. Yes, she makes us feel the pain of that longing and regret, but that only serves to gain our trust, so that when she assures us
I know it hurts like hell right now
And only you know how
No one can tell you when
Oh, but love is gonna come again
…we believe her.