There was lightning in the sky. Heat Lightning (though someone tried to tell me that wasn’t a real thing). Honky tonk lightning. The heat of the honky tonk! A storm was rolling in as J.P. Harris & The Tough Choices, Joe Fletcher & the Wrong Reasons and special guest, Whitey Morgan & the 78’s were rolling out for a stent of shows at The Burning Bridge Tavern in Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, starting in Nashville with Wednesday evening’s performance at the 5 Spot.
I made my way to the venue to find the bands outback easing into a preshow country glow. Smoking cigarettes, chatting over whiskey and beer. (For the record, the 5 Spot no longer allows indoor smoking… I found this out the hard way). Excitement built as the bands bantered. Here was a close-knit group of musicians, drawn together from years of gigging around the states. Cowboy sailors of the American Highway, veterans of the dingy dives, rowdy and ready to get back on the road:
“I’d have never gotten on this ship if I’d known
That it was gonna take me home.
I was never meant for life on land
And I can’t
Make it on my own.”
Joe Fletcher sang with the Wrong Reasons behind him. His words shot out like rapid fire. Quick bursts of image and rhyme. His characters like someone you’d meet in a Flannery O’Connor story (a Southern gothic vibe, though he doesn’t seem to be from any one place). Gritty, and human. Searchers blurring the line between hero and villain.
In ‘Womanizer Blues’, I could hear traces of Blind Willie McTell’s ‘Georgia Rag’. (And I’ve heard it said nobody sings the blues like Blind Willie McTell). Wither it intentional or not, Fletcher gives his own unique spin to the song’s melodic structure, similar to the way McTell adapted his version from Blind Blake’s ‘Wabash Rag’ back in 1931.
He is a unique voice true to the tradition. A powerful performer with energy and command, both solo and when accompanied with a band. Be on the look out this August for his upcoming album, ‘You’re the Wrong Man.’
Now things had really picked up. The secret special guests, Whitey Morgan & the 78’s, were unveiled. Their sound (and stage presence) keeps to the outlaw country tradition. I asked Morgan how they had landed on their Waylon Jennings-type sound coming from the Flint, Michigan.
“I’m originally from the Kentucky area,” Morgan explained. “Folks looking for work migrated up to Michigan, and stayed there. And the sound, and their records, traveled with them. You can get some of the best vinyl at estate sales!”
It was a bit of a morbid thought, though it made sense.
Now things had really picked up. Dancers were two stepping. Members from other bands made cameos. Pedal Steel player, Tony Martinez, sat in on guitar for a rendition of Jimmie Rodger’s ‘T for Texas’. Morgan fed him shots as he ripped a solo (we’re talking full throttle honky tonk). Fiddle player, Josh Hedley (“the greatest country singer under 71”), offered up his angel pipes. Joe Fletcher returned to join J.P. on some songs, and in this way, sets flowed seamlessly without losing energy.
J.P. Harris & the Tough Choices took the evening home. Humble and easy to talk to, J.P. is a fascinating guy. “I once had a song in a Denis Quaid movie. I think I made it in the credits. They have it at the Red Box.” Among his many talents, J.P. somehow finds the time to build historically accurate homes and other contractor work for fellow musicians such as John McCauley of Deer Tick (his tools ranging from the 1880’s to power tools from 2 years ago). “People have called me the ‘carpenter to the country stars’, or, ‘the hipster Bob Vila’,” he laughed.
It was a night of making all the tough choices for the wrong reasons. Harris’ charisma and sense of humor is the kind that makes the difference between a country show and the honky tonk experience. The set consisted of a mix of originals, classic standards, and songs from his upcoming album, ‘Home Is Where The Hurt Is’ (recorded at Ronnie Milsap’s studio).
The storm broke as the show was letting out. I joined them for a nightcap as the crowd spilled into the surrounding bars, bid them a safe journey, and took off down the road.
– Jordan H.