To my great regret, I was a latecomer to the Jimmy LaFave fan club. In the 90s and 00s you could see some of his earlier albums such as ‘Buffalo Return to the Plains’ or ‘Highway Trance’ in many a cheap bin in the shops and I passed them up. And then I heard ‘Red River Shore’ and discovered the soulful voice, the interpretative skills and the songwriting prowess of one of the great americana artists.
To a large extent Jimmy LaFave operated below the radar, his name not being very familiar in the UK and what fame he achieved on this side of the pond (and he was very popular in Holland) is largely by virtue of his covers of other artists’ songs, particularly Bob Dylan. He is generally regarded as the best interpreter of Dylan, but he was in fact so much more than that:
- He was a formidable songwriter, sometimes quite outstanding and his melodies were beautiful.
- He was the instigator of Oklahoman so-called ‘red dirt’ music (a mixture of country, folk, folk rock, rockabilly and tinges of jazz) and his albums are peppered with the words in rollicking quasi-jazz workouts, roots blues and poignant love songs, both his own and others.
- He was a long-time supporter of the legacy of Woody Guthrie, attended the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival every year in Oklahoma and in the early 2000s produced a Woody Guthrie tribute show called ‘Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway’ which toured the States with folk luminaries such as Eliza Gilkyson, Slaid Cleaves and Ellis Paul for a couple of years, leading to a hiatus in his recorded output.
- He was a very talented guitarist who was always able to surround himself with some brilliant sidemen (specifically electric guitarists Larry Wilson and John Inmon and keyboardists David Webb and Radoslav Lorkovic). Many of his songs are long and allow for extended and often spectacular solos by these great players and others, and his acoustic guitar was always prominent.
- He was a great album producer- nearly all his albums were self-produced but he also produced the brilliant ‘Looking into You, a Tribute to Jackson Browne’, and the aforementioned ‘Ribbon of Highway Endless Skyway’, plus a couple of albums for other artists on his Music Road album label
- Above all he was possessed of one of the great voices in modern popular music – a raspy tenor with a little tic in his voice which he used to great effect in wringing emotion from his songs and his covers, which in many cases are superior to the originals.
It might have been easier to pick 10 Jimmy LaFave songs to rate, but then one would have to disregard those impeccable covers that form such a significant part of his oeuvre.
He was born in Wills Point, Texas, spent his younger years in Stillwater, Oklahoma before gravitating to Austin, Texas, where he spent most of the rest of his life, before his untimely death from cancer in May 2017, aged 61.
His time in Oklahoma was formative, as it was here where his red dirt music started and where he discovered Woody Guthrie, his musical hero. It was during one of the Guthrie festivals he met another of his heroes, Jackson Browne who gave his approval for the tribute album.
In the early days of touring round Oklahoma he self-produced three albums which he sold at his gigs in cassette tape form. The third one (‘Highway Angels, Full Moon Rain’) has been remastered and was released in 2021 (it includes songs he later re-recorded for later albums). His first official release was Austin Skyline in 1992, following which was a series of albums which he produced, usually with a core of bass, drums, acoustic and electric guitar, and keyboards, embellished as necessary with steel guitar, fiddle, accordion and other lesser used instruments. He was not averse to repeating songs on various albums and many such turned up on his 2010 retrospective album ‘Favourites 1992-2001’. In 1999 he released ‘Trail’, a double album of live performances, radio broadcasts and outtakes from the previous 15 years or so, and followed it up 10 or more years later with a further four Trail albums, all released without fanfare and with no album credits. In normal circumstances these might not be ripe for consideration in a Top 10 list but such is the quality of the performances that…well, you will see.
An argument could be made that Jimmy LaFave could and should have been a superstar – perhaps a higher profile album producer could have ensured that he was – but it seems he was happy in his own place, producing albums to reflect the sound that he most wanted and felt most comfortable in.
LaFave’s last concert appearance was at the end of a four hour Jimmy LaFave Songwriter Rendezvous tribute concert just days before he died. Carrying an oxygen tank, he never expected to sing more than a line of the song he ended with (‘Goodnight Irene’). In fact he sang the entire song surrounded by his musical friends and family. He left a big hole! Fortunately, there are countless YouTube videos of his outstanding live performances so his memory lives on.
In many ways, it is difficult to pick a favourite ten from his twenty albums because the make up of each album is, with only an exception or two, fundamentally the same, a mixture of rockers, roots blues, covers and ballads, so forgive me, the choice is down to the personal favourites on each album.
Here are my favourites (it could almost just as easily be the other ten!!):
Number 10: ‘The Night Tribe’ (2015)
One of the last studio albums and one of his least varied in pace, the title refers to the name he usually gave his backing band on tour, and it is also his description of the people who exist in the world of music and who frequent the late night hours. The production was a little ‘smoother’ than some of his earlier albums (without some of the vocal tics that he used extensively earlier) and is full of glorious trademark LaFave ballads including strings unusually (‘Talk to an Angel’, ‘Smile’, ‘The Beauty of You’) , each embellished with scintillating guitar breaks from Larry Wilson and Anthony da Costa and the quite brilliant Radoslav Lorkovic on keyboards, Also included on this album are brilliant takes on Dylan’s ‘Queen Jane Approximately’, the only Dylan cover on this album and Neil Young’s’ Journey Through the Past’.
Number 9: ‘Trail 2’ (2014)
Although several of the tracks had been recorded for his studio albums, ‘Trail 2’, the best of the later series of albums of live recordings, radio performances and outtakes, highlighted (as the whole series did) just how good LaFave was live, relying on a single take with little evidence of studio tweaking. There were Dylan covers of course, plus a great take on Jackson Browne’s ‘Your Bright Baby Blues’. Many of the tracks had been recorded elsewhere, the most outstanding of which was his own beautiful love song ‘Never is a Moment’.
Number 8: ‘Depending on the Distance’ (2012)
The usual balanced selection of his own rockers and ballads, and five covers, including the aforementioned stunning take on ‘Red River Shore’, a song Dylan wrote but strangely found very difficult to ‘fit’ into any of his albums until 10 years after he had first recorded it. For LaFave, having lived on both sides of the Red River, the song seemed particularly apposite. Its ten minute tale of lost love pass very quickly in Lafave’s hands with its brooding verse repetition. The whole album seems like a reflection on things past, hence the album title, and that of several of the songs – ‘I’ll remember you’, ‘Bring back the Trains’, ‘Living in your light’, and ‘A place I have left behind’, a particularly haunting LaFave song – “And I’m drifting all alone now, Lost on the midnight sea, But all the love you gave unchained, It has set me free, I wish you hope, I wish you joy, But you are a place I have left behind”
Number 7: ’Highway Trance’ (1994)
LaFave’s second official release (after the three cassette recordings that he self-promoted) and it contains a brilliant mix of blues, rockers and love songs, with almost uncannily perfect track sequencing. After the mix of covers and his own songs on ‘Austin Skyline’, this album contained only one cover, the beautiful take on Kevin Welch’s ‘Early Summer Rain’, so the remainder served to highlight his ongoing skills as a songwriter, notably ‘Café in the Rain’ and ‘When I see you again’. As usual on all LaFave’s albums he is served by the most brilliant musicians, framing his vocals and stretching out with some stunning solos.
Number 6: ‘Blue Nightfall’ (2005)
The first album after the Woody Guthrie Tribute tour (and on a new label), and again with only one cover, Gretchen Peters’ ‘Revival’. The other eleven are Lafave’s own, some written in the style of his heroes (eg ‘Bohemian Cowboy Blues’ could easily have been a Dylan song). This is about as good a collection of Lafave songs as on any of his albums, with the usual blues, rocker and beautiful love songs mixture. Standout tracks are ‘It’s Gone’ (a lament for the Indian nation – “We tried to treat you as a brother, You slowly drove us from the land, You broke all your worthless treaties, But you don’t understand, Listen Listen, Listen It’s Gone”), ‘River Road’’ ‘Music from the Motor Court’ and ‘When You Were Mine’. And if, as one might reasonably surmise, you thought his mix of tracks became a tad repetitive or his lyrics a little simplistic, you only have to listen to his magical voice, which transcends any notion of ‘ordinariness’ in any of his albums. This is one of the shortest of his albums, most of which are well over 50 minutes long, but the quality is there nonetheless.
Number 5: ‘Trail’ (1999)
The first ‘Trail’ album was a more professional package than the Trail albums that followed (full credits with the CD for example) but it has a rough and ready feel because it included about 15 years of collected live performances and outtakes. It was predominantly covers album, with 12 of the 30 selections being interpretations of Dylan classics (all uniformly excellent, and some highlighting LaFave’s Dylanesque phrasing) and another 9 covering other writers’ songs. LaFave’s songs were mostly songs that had previously appeared in studio form, but served to set his songwriting chops against artists like Springsteen, Joe Ely, Woody Guthrie and Jackson Browne as well as Dylan. He does not suffer from the comparison – ‘How it Must remain’, ‘Ellie’s Song’ and ‘The Open Road’ attest to that. The amazing thing about this album is that despite the various sessions, and the different sidesmen used, the entire double album hangs together beautifully.
Number 4: ‘Austin Skyline’ (1992)
The album that set Jimmy LaFave on the road to recognition, his debut for Bohemia Beat Records, which kicks off with one of his trademark rockers ‘Thru the Neon Night’. There are Dylan covers – ‘Girl from the North Country’, ‘ You’re a Big Girl Now’, ‘Leopard-skin Pillbox Hat’, and a wonderful rendition of ‘Shelter from the Storm’, one of Dylan’s most often covered songs- this version is definitive!. But the star track, because it comes right out of left field, is the amazing version of ‘Walk Away Renee’, strangely one of the Four Tops bigger hits in the UK. LaFave’s interpretation is full of longing and despair that the original did not have, and clearly lacks the commercial intentions of the original. The album also contains one of LaFave’s best trademark ballads, ‘Only One Angel’ (getting its second outing on a LaFave album), where he uses his vocal ‘tic’ for emotional effect.
Number 3: ‘Texoma’ (2001)
A tribute by LaFave to the two US states that he effectively called home, Texas and Oklahoma. Alvin Lee’s fiery ‘Rock’n’roll music to the world’ namechecks a number of the great musicians from the two states as well as several towns in each state. It is one of a number of out and out rockers which as usual are mixed with some lovely ballads and a collection of covers which make up half the album. ‘Poor Man’s Dream’ and ‘Woody Guthrie’ are the two tributes to Woody Guthrie both lyrically and vocally. There is a stunning version of Gretchen Peters’ ‘On a Bus to St Cloud’, including an intro of ‘Wind River Turnaround’, exquisitely played by David Webb on piano, and the album ends with a sympathetic and soulful reading of Jimmy Webb’s ‘The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress’. LaFave’s signature standout ballad is the lovely ‘Never is a Moment’ (also on ‘Trail 2’)
Number 2: ‘Cimarron Manifesto’ (2007)
This was Lafave’s most commercially successful album, perhaps because of the usual excellent song choice, perhaps because it was a relatively quiet, pretty album, missing the heavier rock-out tracks that sprinkled most of his albums. Or perhaps because it was his most ‘country’ album. He covers the usual subjects – open spaces, love lost, social issues – both in his own songs and in his choice of covers. These include Joe South’s ‘Walk a Mile in My Shoes’, possibly the best version of one of Dylan’s great songs, ‘Not Dark Yet’, and a spectacular, though quite melancholy, interpretation of Donovan’s ‘Catch the Wind ‘(not every critic’s cup of tea but rather special to these ears). And he takes his country to task in the Guthriesque ‘This Land’ – ‘Cause I went driving, through the American night, And I slowly watched my freedoms disappear right out of sight, Travelling through this land It’s the only thing I know To say my friend, I simply want my country back again’ As with all his albums the backing band is superb and are allowed to stretch out with some stunning solo breaks.
Number 1: ‘Peace Town’ (2018)
By any criteria this is a great album but the fact that it was recorded and produced by LaFave after his diagnosis for inoperable cancer makes it very special. The band was amazing including long time guitarists Larry Wilson and John Inmon, Stefano Intelisano on keyboards, the outstanding mandolinist Kym Warner (of the Greencards) and the incomparable Jaimee Harris on backing vocals. But what sets it apart despite anything that went before is the song selection, virtually every one a reference, oblique or otherwise, to his impending demise, a looking back to what was and ahead to what might be in store in the future – Dylan’s ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome’, ‘My Back Pages’ and ‘What Good am I’, David Ball’s exquisite ‘When the Thought of You Catches up with Me’, Leon Russell’s ‘Help Me Make it Through the Day’, Bob McDill’s ‘I May be Used (But I Ain’t Used Up’). His own contributions included one of his very best blues numbers, ‘Ramblin’ Sky’. The closing track, Tim Easton’s ‘Goodbye Amsterdam’, is both a love letter to the city he loved and a farewell to everybody else “ Goodbye Amsterdam, I didn’t want to leave just yet”. An outstanding album.