Harris proves you don’t have to be old to be classic

Music trends are an easy way to pinpoint the degeneration of a once-beloved and unique genre to a watered-down product that’s sold to the masses browsing music in a big-box store.

Cases in point: Good Charlotte once was called “punk” but had little resemblance to the angst and power of a Black Flag. And The Black Eyed Peas certainly don’t carry the lyrical importance and social power of Public Enemy. But nowhere is the downward spiral of a once-classic art form been so blatant as in country music, where the charts are dominated by pop musicians wearing cowboy hats.

Some people, though, choose to buck trends. J.P. Harris and his band The Tough Choices are among them. The band’s latest release, “I’ll Keep Calling,” is a collection of country and honky-tonk in the classic Bakersfield tradition, and it’s sitting high atop some of the lesser country charts.

Harris and The Tough Choices will play Saturday at The Summit. Harris sings and plays rhythm guitar and the band includes Mike Brock on lead guitar, Andy Carrell on bass and Trevor Silva on drums.

If any musician is carrying the torch for the classic country sounds of the past, it’s Harris. He’s been making music since he was a teenager, paying the bills as a carpenter, banjo builder, ranch hand and other blue-collar trades.

Harris’ foray into country music came from the need to be heard.

“I wanted something that could cut through the bar noise,” Harris said last week while on tour in Texas. “I wanted something that was amplified and loud, and I started obsessing over the country music that came out of California in the ’60s.”

Modern chart-topping country, and the fact that it has little to do with the music of Buck Owens, is a topic from which Harris doesn’t shy.

“I feel strongly about that. I feel like there’s a big difference between the stuff that started as what everyone thinks of as the great oldies of country music these days, and what people are cranking out now,” he said. “It’s record companies trying to sell music and product to as many people as they can. You’re getting electronic drum beats, cheesy rock ’n’ roll hair metal-sounding guitar solos, and the sense of taste and dignity has very much been lost on the whole in what today is referred to as country music. It doesn’t have any of the old styling of real country music.”

Mass consumerism will continue to be a problem in any American business, and music isn’t immune. But it’s important to acknowledge that there remains a minority that will cut through the crap and appreciate quality.

“It’s inspiring to me that there’s a lot of new country fans being created every day, and there’s a whole undercurrent of independent-level, original, old-school country music,” Harris said. “The number one thing I hear after every show is, ‘I didn’t know I like country music, but you guys are bad-asses.’ ... A lot of folks have never heard this old stuff. It’s nice to feel like you are spreading the gospel.”

Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at Liggett_b@fortlewis.edu.