JP Harris Rekindle a Timeless Country Sound on 'Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing'
Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing avoids imitation and firmly concertizes JP Harris as a palpable country presence.
Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing
5 October 2018
JP Harris commands the honky-tonk. Signaling bygone music exemplars, Harris creates the steely and visceral sounds that make country music so appealing and convivial. His recent release, Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing, is a swinging and rollicking throwback to classic country while also showcasing his hardscrabble ingenuity. The production and musicians' Harris enlisted for this album are notable. The Watson Twins and Leroy Powell of Whiskey Wolves of the West provide the backing vocals. Old Crow Medicine Show's Morgan Jahnig's produces while his fiddle scritches. Yet it is Harris' musical skill that heralds acclaim. Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing avoids imitation and firmly concertizes Harris as a palpable country presence.
Born in Montgomery, Alabama, Harris left home at 14. He led an itinerant lifestyle: catching odd jobs, jumping trains, and living wherever would house him. These experiences indelibly informed his creativity and approach to country music. He alludes to his history in "Jimmy's Dead and Gone" when he mentions "When I was just 14 years old / I grabbed a Greyhound from my home... Yeah, I received my education / On the freight trains of our nation." Correspondingly, he revisits his past in "Runaway" as he mentions finding day work at the Labor Ready and avoiding longstanding relationships. As Harris laments, "I was born a runaway / Leaving comes natural, that's what they say / I guess I never had the mind to pay / To stayin' nowhere long." The inspiration derived from his history is precisely the reason Harris' music is never gimmicky or reiterative. He is thoroughly authentic.
Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing's instrumentation and energy is an apparent genuflection to the genre's foundation. Opening with "JP's Florida Blues #1", Harris immediately exhibits his ability to rekindle a timeless country sound. The track depicts rambling and rowdy carousing, laced with cocaine-fueled spells, all the while carried by riotous drums and a haunting organ. The song is fast-paced and rollicking but thankfully avoids the party anthem vibe prevalent in the contemporary style. Likewise, the twangy and buoyant "Hard Road" encourages listeners to either dance, wail, or brawl. It's not clear which one, undoubtedly Harris' intent.
Equivalently, Harris employs the trope of finding kinship from vices. In "When I Quit Drinkin'" he confesses, "when I quit drinkin' I start thinkin' about startin' up again." Much as his musical predecessors tackled their addictions, Harris also spends time reflecting and lamenting on his debauchery in the title track: "Why did I go out looking for answers at the all-night bars with pole dancers? When the truth was waiting in a warm bed back home." As he makes clear in "I Only Drink Alone", the album is not meant to develop self-awareness or emotional growth. He "revels in this misery" but "curses this bottle quietly".
The album's standout track is "Miss Jeanne-Marie", a yarn depicting unrequited love and regret. Kellen Wenrich's slow and decadent piano chords accentuate Harris' vocals to create a somber texture. As the chorus begins, his voice demonstrates an evident uptick when he sings, "Oh, but Miss Jeanne-Marie / I met you at the wrong time." Irrefutably the vocal ascent mirrors the sound of weeping. Harris' baritone is inundated with sorrow and anguish thereby framing the song's immersive nostalgia.
In a refreshing spin, Harris rejects the misogynistic specters haunting classic country music. Rather than positioning women as sexualized tokens, at no point on the album does he belittle or demean women. Nor does Harris blame women for triggering his vices. Instead, he situates himself as an advocate for women's rights. In the track "Lady in the Spotlight", Harris addresses the predatory music industry. He is especially critical of the deceptive exchange of sex for stardom: "Oh I pray that someday you'll face the bright lights / But tonight you're just a girl with no last name." Harris acutely recognizes the abusive power structure underlying the industry's willful ignorance surrounding sexual assault. The song ends by acknowledging the issue's ubiquity. In doing so, he echoes and exalts the conversations initiated by the #metoo movement.
Harris doesn't primarily identify as a musician; rather he's a carpenter who writes country music. If Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing receives the acclaim it deserves, he might reprioritize his professions.