Over the course of four albums for the Bohemia Beat label, including his latest, Road Novel, Austin singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave has shown a gift for blending a variety of influences-folk, rock 'n roll, country and, most of all, Bob Dylan.
And topping it all off is that voice-sort of a mix between Rod Stewart and Steve Forbert, with the phrasing of Van Morrison thrown in for good measure.
Born in Wills Point, Texas, LaFave moved to Oklahoma when he was fifteen, then moved back to Austin ten years ago. Musically, he's a product of both areas. "There's so much music that's come from Oklahoma - Woody Guthrie, J.J. Cale, Chet Baker, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Reba, Leon Russell," LaFave says in recent phone call from Milwaukee. "There's a cool music scene around Tulsa and Stillwater that has its own sound, like Memphis or New Orleans. They call it 'red dirt music.'"
During his years in Stillwater, LaFave frequently crossed paths with a young upstart named Garth Brooks. In fact, the two shared a couple of band members. "We used to play the same club in Stillwater called Willy's, which is where he got his start," LaFave says. "He was the Wednesday Happy Hour guy, and I would play the Friday and Saturday nights. At the time, he was just starting out. He was a fraternity guy and was on the track team. All he really did was cover song - Dan Fogelburg, lots of George Strait."
Was there any clue to Brooks' eventual superstardom? "Not really," LaFave says. "He was always a nice guy; he wasn't a jerk or anything. He was a business major, so he was really good at promotion. One year, he went into a local studio and recut the 'Devil Went Down to Georgia' as 'The Cornhuskers came down to Stillwater' before a game with Nebraska and sold it out in front of the stadium. I'm not surprised that when he went to Nashville he fit so well, because he's pretty good at being willing to do anything it took to make it. Whereas I probably wouldn't last too long in Nashville - if they told me what to do, I'd say 'forget it.'"
Ten years ago, LaFave decided to move to Austin, drawn by singer-songwriters, like Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Guy Clark. "I just liked the Austin music scene; it was more receptive and open," LaFave says. "I liked the singers and songwriters, especially all the Lubbock guys, and the blues scene. From Tish Hinojosa and Shawn Colvin to Alejandro Escovedo and James McMurtry, there's a good variety of songwriting there. Lucinda Williams was also living there. It was like the peak generation of writers had settled and did the stuff I really dug, so that's why I stayed."
On his four CDs, LaFave gives listeners their money's worth, cramming well over an hour's worth of music onto each disc. It's because he's had to make up for lost time. "I had signed this record deal [with Tomato] shortly after I had got to Austin, but the records never came out, and I was trapped in this contract where I couldn't put anything out for about five years," LaFave says. "As soon as I got out of that, I put out Austin Skyline, which had a lot of old songs. Highway Trance had five or six songs I had written in Stillwater, and there were three on Buffalo Return to the Plains. The new record, though, has all new songs, except for the Leon Russell and Dylan songs. I still have a big back catalog of a lot of songs, but I don't know if I'll record them."
A longtime fan of Dylan - he's recorded several of his songs, including "Buckets of Rain" and "Sweetheart Like You" - LaFave paid a visit to the legendary songwriter's boyhood home in Hibbing, Minnesota, last year. "You could almost feel some of his songs around there - it's a mystical thing," says LaFave. "Just driving from Hibbing back to Duluth and Minneapolis, you can almost sense how some of his songs, like 'Girl From the North Country,' came about."
Over the years, LaFave has developed into what could be called an "roadhouse arena rocker" who's capable of belting out anthemic rockers and tender ballads. "It really helps to do both, especially when we tour Europe," he says. "Sometimes a promoter will book us into places that are totally inappropriate for a singer-songwriter, like a French biker blues bar where people just want to dance to rock and roll. So being able to cover both bases has bailed us out of a few weird gigs that we've gotten ourselves into."
Some writers, including Austin's Don McLeese, have occasionally criticized LaFave for oversinging. "He might be right," LaFave says. "There are some shows in Austin where we totally get carried away and start playing with lyrics and phrasing. He mentioned one Dylan song on record that he thought I over sang, but actually it's one of my most requested songs. But I've caught myself at times. You get tired of hearing your own voice or singing same songs night after night. I can listen to different recordings and think I shouldn't have done that, but I try not sing anything twice the same way. If you compare my live performances to records, they're never the same. I try to be spontaneous to keep it fun for me."
The road is a common theme in LaFave's writing, as his two of his album titles - Road Novel and Highway Trance - and many of his song titles bear out. "I think it's because I used to drive around the country for my dad's trucking business," he says. "Driving makes for a lot of road imagery, and being a musician, I'm still on the road. And being on the road, you write what you know about."
"But I have influences like Woody Guthrie, who rambled around America," he adds. "It gets in your blood after awhile. There are all the different parts of the country to see. When you go to New Orleans you can almost hear that sound that comes out of the part of the country. There's definitely some kind of real relation between the landscape and the music."
Speaking of Guthrie, LaFave was honored last year to perform at the Rock and Roll Hall Fame tribute show for the late folk legend. "There was all these people there, like Bruce Springsteen, the Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, Pete Seeger. Dylan was supposed to be there, but he didn't make it," LaFave remembers. "During finale they put me on same mic as Arlo Guthrie and Bruce and we all traded verses on 'I've Got To Know.'
"Arlo is a big fan of mine, so when they put Woody - along with Merle Haggard and Patti Page - in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame a few months ago, I was asked to represent the Guthrie family and do Woody's songs."
While LaFave gotten some airplay around the country, it's been difficult for him to break into mainstream radio. He seems custom made for the Americana format. "It hasn't taken off yet, but maybe it's the beginning of something," LaFave says of the Americana chart. "I try to be optimistic because the music's so good. Americana can be anything from Jimmie Dale Gilmore or Dylan to Chuck Berry or Little Feat. All these artists draw on the basic roots-country, folk, blues - and it seems like radio has to come back to that at some time.
"There's a big Americana station in Dallas that reaches millions of people right in the middle of Dallas," he continues. "So we're driving to do an on-air appearance, and they had this commercial slogan like 'We play the music no one else will play!' I'm thinking, that doesn't sound too good - it's like saying, 'no one else will play this crap, so we will!' They definitely need to change that slogan."
LaFave released "Road Novel" in March, which means it's too early to start planning the next record yet. Still, LaFave has given it some thought. "I think Bohemia Beat would like me to put out a record of some of the unreleased stuff that we recorded for the other records," he says. "Mark Shumate, the head of the label, thought there were some songs that he felt should've made the other records. And I might add in some live cuts from Europe or radio appearances. I hate to call it a retrospective - it sounds like I'm retired! - but it could be an album of those odds and ends. There's a lot of stuff I can draw on to make it high quality; it wouldn't just be sweeping up scraps to get them out.
"Then after that, maybe we'll do another studio record."
Check out the official Jimmy
LaFave web site at Bohemia Beat Records.
Copyright 1997 Jim Catalano