On the Borderline

Jimmy LaFave's Texoma Blends Music of Neighboring States

Jimmy LaFave calls his latest record Texoma, a nod to his deep roots in the land and the music of both Texas and Oklahoma. “I think all geographical regions have a certain sound to them which comes out of the landscape,” he says.

“You can almost hear the jazz when you’re down in New Orleans, feel why that music came from down there,” he continues. “If you’re ever in the Delta, on Highway 61, you can feel why you’d play a blues progression when you’re there. Texas is the same thing,” he says, “and
Oklahoma is an extension of that.

“There is a real spiritual attitude toward music among the people who live there,” he says. “That’s how I grew up learning about music, and this record is kind of a tribute to that.” Far from the stereotypical Texas country twangsmith, LaFave evokes the landscape directly in the vivid images of his “Red Dirt Song” and pays tribute to another Okie musician in “Woody Guthrie.”

“Growin’ up in Oklahoma, you just automatically know a lot of Woody’s songs,” LaFave recalls, “and we used to go down to Okemah, were he was from, and hang out — at that time the walls to his old homestead were still standing, but they’re completely gone now.” In recent years LaFave has been instrumental in starting the Woody Guthrie Festival, held each July in Okemah, and he was one of the headliners in A Texas Tribute to Woody Guthrie held last spring in Austin’s historic Paramount Theater.

He also sees the Guthrie influence in how he approaches songwriting. “I do a lot of writing when I’m traveling, out on the road,” he says. “I was on Amtrak last week, and when you see things out the window, it’s sort of like you’re watching a movie. You see two
people talking on a corner, and you imagine what’s going on, or you see a sign with a word you like. You get a kind of scope you
can’t get just sitting in your house, or sittin’ in a room staring at another writer and tryin’ to come up with ideas.”

That’s also part of what drew him to one of the songs he covers on Texoma, Gretchen Peters’ “On a Bus to Saint Cloud.” Peters’ images of regret and redemption framed in flickering glimpses of a
familiar face in a crowd in locales from Saint Cloud to New Orleans “is a brilliant song,” LaFave says. “It’s just beautifully written, and it’s got that feeling about looking out the window as you’re traveling and passing things … I think Woody had a lot of that in his music, just getting out and ramblin’ around, and that always works best for me.” “‘On a Bus to Saint Cloud,’” he adds, “is my favorite song to sing when we do live shows. I know Trisha Yearwood had a hit with it, but I decided that I was going to do it, too. It’s a song more people should hear.”

LaFave offers several other unexpected covers, including Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,” John Phillips’ “San Francisco,” and Bob Dylan’s “Emotionally Yours.” Webb, he points out, is also from Oklahoma. “I’ve always loved the melody of ‘San Francisco,’” he says, “and there’s sort of an Oklahoma connection — my old keyboard player back in Stillwater used to be roommates with Scott McKenzie, who had the hit with the song.” And Dylan? “Well, there’s always Dylan,” he says, laughing. “Dylan is just such a huge influence on me too, definitely up there at the top.”

While he was living in Stillwater, Okla., LaFave crossed paths with another budding musician. “Garth [Brooks] came up here to college on a track scholarship,” he says, “and he had a gig on Wednesday nights where the frat boys would all go hear him play cover tunes. Stillwater was about 40,000 people at that time, and about half of those were students, so it was a good town to play music. The guy who had the first studio in town was Steve Ripley of the Tractors. I sometimes joke with my Austin friends that between Garth and Steve Ripley, I’ll bet Stillwater has sold more records than the whole Austin scene put together,” he says, laughing.

“Coming out of Stillwater, Garth went to Nashville and I went to Austin, and look what happened!” LaFave jokes. “I almost did move to
Nashville, but at the last minute I decided no, I’m goin’ to Austin. And I’ve never regretted it. That’s what this record is really about, to celebrate the time I’ve spent in Texas and Oklahoma, and the sound of the music here.”