JP Harris’ Dreadful Wind & Rain: Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man

JP Harris sings and plays fretless banjo with Chance McCoy (fiddle and backing vocals) on this ten-track album. The pair give themselves the unlikely name JP Harris’ Dreadful Wind & Rain and it’s their debut recording of traditional Appalachian ballads, square dance tunes, and old-time music.

Harris was born in Alabama and brought up in the punk underground. He left home at an early age to travel on the road as a teenager and is now based in Nashville where he works as a carpenter building recording studios and restoring historic buildings. He is also known as a country singer, and as a powerful banjoist playing handmade instruments.

Meeting up again with Chance McCoy (from Old Crow Medicine Show) the two decided to record these songs – and one instrumental – at McCoy’s studio in an old barn in the mountains of West Virginia. McCoy produced. Says Harris, “You are hearing the real me, shoeless in cutoff jeans up in the mountains, playing old music with an old friend.” The story of how this all came about is told by Harris in an illuminating essay in the notes to the album.

The songs were learned through oral tradition and antique songbooks with a nod to many of the musicians who have helped to keep them alive. This being traditional music, there are tales of murder, devils, adoration, love lost, and all manner of weirdness. Among the best-known ballads is the classic ‘Barbry Ellen’ learned from recordings by Jean Ritchie.  

There is also a fine version of ‘Old Bangum’, a playful piece that Harris learned from a cassette recording of children’s songs by members of the Seeger family, sung by Peggy Seeger. The song was revived in recent times by Rayna Gellert, and Harris mentions listening to the version played by her father Dan Gellert.

It’s perhaps no surprise that – Harris being a carpenter in his other incarnation – it is the well-known ‘House Carpenter’ that opens the album, and later on there is the sombre ballad ‘The Little Carpenter’ which is a bit less familiar. There are also some lively hints of bluegrass on a couple of tracks, ‘Closer to the Mill’ and ‘Otto Wood’. 

JP Harris (Photo: Libby Danforth)

There was no detailed plan of how the album should evolve, and in this case, it obviously worked out as the results of just the two of them playing music and seeing what happens are totally compelling. New life is breathed into the songs by Harris and McCoy who play around with different ways of telling the stories and expressing old truths.

The last word should be with JP Harris who concludes his personal essay like this:

“I could write pages about the many facets of this music; why it is still relevant, its impact on various communities’ and individuals’ lives, the problems with its past and the reason we must ensure its future, if not possibly in a different light. But I will leave these thoughts to you, the listener, and hope that if nothing else, you can feel the connection to this uniquely American sound; born of migration, violence, compassion, fear, love, and pure unbridled joy.”

Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man is released on 25th June by Free Dirt Records.

Explore posts in the same categories: Roots Music from Out There

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