Tuesday, May 10, 2005

REV: Jimmy LaFave

Dave Marsh, writing in The Austin Chronicle, does a simply superb ballad on one of my favorite balladeers.

Ribbon on the Highway

The other side of Jimmy LaFave

BY DAVE MARSH

Here comes Jimmy LaFave. Maybe he's walking onstage to sing or
slipping into the back of the Cactus Cafe to hear an old friend. Or lounging in
a hotel lobby between gigs. Maybe he's walking up your driveway. The setting
makes no difference. He's Jimmy LaFave wherever he goes.

. . .

Jimmy LaFave used to have that job, driving for his father,
who was a parts supplier, first based in Wills Point ("that's in Van Zandt
County," the singer points out), then when he was a high school sophomore, in
Stillwater, Okla., where his family relocated. LaFave's still got a
long-hauler's instinct for wisecracks, though since getting married, the
flirting's toned way down. He's still a dedicated driver; his agent, Val Denn,
says he insists on driving to a lot of gigs even when it'd be cheaper and easier
to fly. Friends in Oklahoma talk about scary runs on red dirt roads, flying
through intersections in a pickup piloted with the legendary LaFave confidence.
Driving is part of what defines him. He says he does a lot of his best writing
out there, picking up images from road signs, for instance, because he once
heard Bob Dylan did that.

. . .

Empathy is why, even though LaFave pens most of the songs on
his albums, he's best known as an interpreter of other people's material. That
may be changing: His latest, Blue Nightfall, contains 11 originals, and they're
by far the best he's written, particularly "River Road," "Shining On Through,"
and the extraordinary "Rain Falling Down." Nevertheless, he's one of the few
contemporary singer-singers who work covers into their sets because they belong
there – because he loves them and they're well-suited to his singular voice.
He's got a gritty midrange, a thrilling ability to hit high notes, phrasing so
adept that he can sing quasi-art songs like Jimmy Webb's "The Moon's a Harsh
Mistress" as easily as "Oklahoma Hills" or "Have You Ever Loved a Woman." His is
a pronounced vibrato, uncontrolled, but he can still shake a note 'til it almost
breaks.

. . .

LaFave can get to the heart of ballads because he has such a
magnificent sense of time. He commands the stillness between phrases even more
than the lyrics themselves, which makes it seem as if every line is being
uttered for the first time, after due consideration and from a place deep
inside. His upbeat material has always been a little more problematic; he's best
as a straight-up blues singer, doing something like "Key to the Highway," though
he can rev up stomping Southwestern rock & roll. But truck drivers are
loners, even or especially the most romantic ones. To turn that loneliness into
art is a beautiful gift all by itself.

. . .

Onstage and on his albums, in his songwriting and song
choices, LaFave eschews Guthrie-style politics in favor of intricate
commentaries on romantic love, human connections, and the delights and sorrows
of rambling. The closest he's come to writing about issues is a series of
metaphoric songs about Indians, most plaintively on "It's Gone," from Blue
Nightfall, most definitively with "Buffalo Return to the Plains," the title song
of his 1995 album.

It isn't as simple as passion and obsession, influence and
raw talent, either. LaFave wouldn't let it be. He has a mulish streak. For
instance, he's the only one of the five kids in his family not to go to college,
even though Stillwater's a college town. He was already playing bass in rock
bands like Night Tribe. He explains this as the practical choice: "Once I
discovered music, I didn't want anything to fall back on."

. . .

Jackson clearly changed his father's life, and in every way,
the change was positive. LaFave kept working, but he only went out for a week or
two, occasionally three, not the long rambling stints he did before his son was
born. He wanted to be home for those first few years. He wasn't in any hurry to
make an album: "I did what I always do, make an album when I have 12 good songs
and I'm ready." One more crucial thing happened: His mother was diagnosed with
cancer.

When Bob Childers wrote "Elvis Loved His Momma," he tapped
into one of the secret truths of rock & roll: They're all mama's boys, from
Elvis to the Beatles to Bruce to ... well, Los Lonely Boys talk a lot about
their dad, but I bet you anything if you cornered them in dead of night, it's
mama who got 'em through the bad times. LaFave fits the mold, and he has more
reason than most. His mother led gospel gatherings up until just before her
death. She bought Jimmy his first guitar using green stamps. When she was
entering the final phase of illness, he didn't waste any time.

"I got Jackson and put him in the car and we just drove
straight through to Stillwater. I was just in time. I got to spend a day or two
there, and I got to play her my version of 'Revival.' She loved it when I sang
that song in my shows, and it was so important to play the record for her."

. . .

Read the whole thing here. . .

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