In today’s musical culture, the word “authenticity” has pretty much lost all meaning. What used to represent something bona fide and true is now just watered-down marketing speak, stamped onto press releases without a second thought.
Born in Montgomery, Alabama in 1983, JP Harris doesn’t fancy himself so much a musician as he does a carpenter who writes country songs. After finishing the eighth grade, he boarded a Greyhound in the middle of an early summer night, and scarcely looked back.
He traveled the country, often alone, hitchhiking and hopping freight trains while making his living as a farm laborer, shepherd, woodsman, and carpenter, among many other titles.
Still an in-demand carpenter to this day, Harris has been writing and performing country music for nearly a decade now, releasing his debut album, I’ll Keep Calling, in 2012. He followed that album with Home Is Where the Hurt Is in 2014, which only saw his star rise both among country fans and critics at major outlets like Rolling Stone. JP was also referenced by Eagles front man Don Henley in a 2015 interview with Hey Reverb as making “thoughtful, authentic music.”
With his forthcoming album “Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing,” he’s back after a four- year hiatus to remind folks what a lifetime dedicated to country music really looks and sounds like. Sure to please fans of his hardscrabble earlier work, this new release also finds the acclaimed songwriter and vocalist stretching himself musically and personally. It was one of the tougher albums Harris has put together, with a disappointing few false starts that would eventually yield a fruitful situation from which he could work.
“I feel like I was trying to make this record for two or three years before we actually got around to making it,” Harris says. “I had written at least half of the songs a couple years before we got close to a plan of how to make it. I really wanted to wait for the right situation to come up before I made this album. A lot of things changed in my life between when I made my previous album and when we decided to go into the studio last year to make this one. I felt like I had a very different approach to life and music in general. It was really important to wait for the right situation to coalesce before I dove into making something new.”
In addition to taking a little more time planning Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing, Harris also changed up his approach to recording. Working with producer (and Old Crow Medicine Show member) Morgan Jahnig, Harris tapped a handful of his favorite players, sent them acoustic demos of the album’s tracks, and gave some pretty specific instructions: “Take the next five days to think about these. Please write notes of whatever ideas come to mind. Please don’t talk to each other about it. Let’s all just get in the studio on day one and compare notes as we go.”
The resulting sessions had an air of spontaneity and a palpable creative energy, both of which lent themselves to an album that feels real, raw, and more akin to a live performance than anything Harris has put out thus far. “We took a counter-intuitive approach,” he says. “We had no pre-production. There were no rehearsals. We basically had a whole studio full of multi-instrumentalists, a six-piece band total, for the whole recording session. Everybody played at least two instruments. It was a really interesting way to do it and I think it helped us avoid anybody, including myself, overthinking the songs.”
Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing opens with “JP”s Florida Blues #1,” a hard- driving country rock number that details some of Harris’ darker days touring Florida with his band, the Tough Choices. “This track is special to me in many ways,” he says. “Not only was it fun as hell to record, but for me it’s a humorous way to process a very real and very dark stretch of time from my past. Once I was far enough away from it, the story became a little easier to recount in a near- comical fashion.”
It’s followed by “Lady in the Spotlight,” an affecting song with layered strings that turns a critical eye to the stark gender imbalance within the predatory music industry. Here, Harris and Jahnig took an unconventional approach to powerful effect.
“It’s the story of a small town girl, buying a one-way flight to California with a guitar, only to find that her body and not her talent is the only way she can leverage her dreams into being,” he says. “It’’s a tale that many could imagine being true back in the ‘60s or ‘70s, and I believe that many music fans assume that as an industry we are “past that time” without realizing it is a very cruel reality still faced by many female artists still today.”
Another album highlight is “When I Quit Drinking,” which, as its title suggests, is a tender look at one of Harris’ most personal struggles. Gossamer strands of pedal steel complement the gentle quaver in his voice, and the songs’ lyrics are some of his most personal to date.
“As some of my songwriting becomes more introspective or true-to-life, I tried to offer something universally identifiable in this one,” he says. “Though almost all of my songs are in some form true stories from my own life, I also feel the right to keep some things my own personal business. With this song I was able to vocalize one of my own struggles, with the hope that it helps someone else through theirs.”
In just about every way, Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing is a recorded manifestation of Harris’ growth over the last four years. He’s become more comfortable in his singing, more confident in his artistic direction, and more adventurous in his sonic palette. He’s letting listeners in to some of his most difficult struggles and turning a compassionate eye to the struggles of others.