HOPKINS COUNTY, KY (3/23/13) – I maneuvered my car through the “best town on earth” excitedly as I closed in on my destination. I had been looking forward to this day. Today, I was to meet “word-smithing” musical genius, singer-songwriter, and guitarist, James Michael Harris, for an interview.
I pulled into a short gravel driveway off Hanson Street in Madisonville, KY and parked my car next to a small, unassuming white house. The front door opened as I was walking up the short path nearing the front steps. I was greeted warmly by a man with a smile that stretched from one ear to the other. He welcomed me boisterously with an infectious laugh and I couldn’t help but feel completely at ease. It was almost like visiting an old friend.
We had never met before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I felt as if I’d run across a kindred spirit I might have known in another life. We were quick to fall into easy conversation.
James offered me some coffee and I accepted. He gave me a quick tour as we walked towards the kitchen and, along the way, showed me some old records that he’d helped to collaborate on.
As a testament to his selfless, giving nature, when James found that I liked hot chocolate mix in my coffee, he pulled some out of a nearby cabinet and insisted that I not only use some in my coffee, but that I take the entire box home with me.
We walked back to the living room and sat down, hot mugs in-hand. I was honored to be welcomed so effortlessly into James’ home and life. As our conversation progressed, he weaved a wide web of stories and adventure, pulling me right into his oftentimes humorous tales—tales about the unique path that life has led him down up to this point.
James has traveled the U.S. delighting others with his deep baritone voice and his incredible guitar skills. He’s known and highly respected as one of the area’s most talented musicians. He has written songs with some of the world’s most prominent songwriters and has played alongside many other talented individuals you are probably familiar with.
What sets James apart from the rest? Quite simply, James has a noteworthy gift of phrase and an uncanny ability to connect with others because of it.
I can say with honesty that I haven’t met many people in my life that have charmed me as quickly as James Michael Harris, and I’m sure you will be just as enchanted as you read the following interview.
Without further ado, I present you with some dialogue between myself and one of my newest and greatest friends, James Michael Harris.
Jess – I’ve been excited to talk to you, because you’re somewhat of a legend in this area. Every local musician that I’ve talked to knows who you are. When we started the Sugg Street Post in November, you were one of the first people that we had hoped to do a story on.
James Michael Harris – Well, people listen to my music all over the world. Tom Ghent, a songwriter who used to collaborate with [acclaimed musician and film actor] Kris Kristofferson years ago, came up from Nashville to visit me. [Singer-songwriter] Ron Bankley came down from Canada, and the three of us went to the [family] cabin [on the Green River] and stayed a weekend or so. We did a few little coffee house gigs while they were in. But Tom said, “You’re the greatest songwriter that nobody’s ever heard of.” [laughs] Mainstream is young and pretty; I’m old, fat, and ugly. Regardless, I still have the God-given gift of touching hearts. I can actually make hair stand up on the back of your neck sometimes.
Jess – Well, you have a deep Johnny Cash voice, which I love.
JMH – I know it. I have had that all my life. Most people tell me that I sound like Johnny Cash, only better. [laughs] That’s what they tell me all the time. I’ve been blessed with a good voice.
Jess – Well, let’s start at the beginning. Where were you born? What was your childhood like growing up?
JMH – When I was born, my mom and dad had a farm over in Livermore, Kentucky. I had a great childhood. My dad bought me my first guitar—a little plastic guitar—for Christmas one year when I was about 7-years-old. It was great, and I was quite happy with it. However, that same night, he sat on it and broke it. I threw such a fit that he went out and bought me a wooden one. I got an upgrade right away.
Jess – That was a blessing in disguise!
JMH – I guess so. I just drove them crazy pluckin’ around on it. [laughs] I didn’t really even have anybody to emulate. I was only seven. But anyway, my mom passed away when I was ten. She was only 39-years-old at the time.
Jess – Why did she pass away so young?
JMH - She had toxemia [blood poisoning]. This was back in the early ‘60s, so they really didn’t have a clue what that was, as far as how to cure it and all that. So that was a life-changing thing. Eventually, my dad remarried and, shortly after that, we moved to Calhoun [Kentucky].
Jess – What year were you born?
JMH – Get ready. 1953.
Jess – Whoa. [both laughing]
JMH – The other day, I called AT&T to check on the internet, because I’m still on dial-up, and they had the same reaction. I told the lady on the other end of the line, “Yeah, I’m still on dial-up,” and she said, “Whoa!” I said, “Well, I didn’t feel bad until I talked to you.” [laughs]
Jess – So, Calhoun. I guess you’re familiar with Jay Burgers?
JMH – Oh my gosh!
Jess – My favorite! I was just talking to somebody about Jay Burgers yesterday.
JMH – Let’s go! Hey, turn that thing [voice recorder] off! [laughing] I’m serious!
Jess – How long did you live in Calhoun?
JMH – I was in the last graduating class of Calhoun High School in 1972 before they consolidated to McLean County. We [the senior class] got to select the school mascot. We all chose the Cougars.
Jess – Did you play music in band there?
JMH – I played guitar in the FFA band. Before that, my neighbor-friend and I played together. He had an interest in music, because his dad played some guitar and a little fiddle. We started learning from his dad and then we taught ourselves some other stuff. We learned “Wildwood Flower” and stuff like that—some of the old bluegrass songs. By the time we were 13, we got a couple of other fellas from Livermore—the Latham brothers [Ronnie and Monty]—playing with us. Their father, Jim Latham, was a great steel guitar player. He played all over the place. He played Nashville a lot and what have you. [Singer-songwriter] Cody Clutchman was a regular down in Nashville with Dolly Parton, and he was from McLean County.
Jess – So, was that the first band you were ever a part of?
JMH – Yeah.
Jess – What was your band’s name?
JMH – Well, that song “Louie Louie” was out, and “Big Louie” Dickerson became our lead singer, so we called ourselves King Louie and the House Effects. I came up with the phrase "house effects" because I was young and into everything. I had invented these strobe lights, and we used black lights [during our shows]. It was definitely a trip in a trip. This was the late ‘60s and none of us had our license, so my sister had to drive us around. God bless my sister Shirley, Shirley Rager. Back then, she was the rock. My little brother Donnie was just a baby when our mother died and everything. I get choked up when I think about it. Shirley was only 15-years-old and she stepped up and took care of the rest of us. Maybe Shirley and mom worked out something in the final moments that I don’t know about.
Jess – Does your sister live around here?
JMH – She’s got a farm and we have a family cabin down there. Part of it is in Ohio County and part of it is in Daviess County. The line goes right through the middle of the property. My sister owns the property in between Livermore and Rumsey [Kentucky] on Basin Road. I’ve written a bunch of songs down there at the cabin. I have fans that come down and visit me there. I try to be as humble as I can when I call them fans, but they will let you know that they think I am the greatest songwriter that ever lived. In fact, I met two ladies named Emma and Tammy at the Bean Blossom Blues Festival and they came out and visited with some of us at the cabin. Right outside Nashville [Indiana] there is a little community called Bean Blossom, and I jam up there every year at the festival with [blues guitarist] Gary Applegate. Gary is really good. I’ve been performing there every year for the last six years.
Jess – As a performer, do you prefer to collaborate?
JMH – Two heads are better than one. I’m a firm believer in cold writers. Thank God, because I’ve written for some of the greatest. I’ve had really good opportunities. I’m surprised myself that I’m not further along than I am.
Jess – Who all have you cold written for?
JMH – The one that has my heart the most is [singer-songwriter and guitarist] David Gillon. He and I wrote several songs. We actually wrote three songs at one time, in one day, and all three got published. Two of them got recorded. We were like a factory. This was down in Nashville years ago. I’ve also cold written for [singer-songwriter and guitarist] Troy Seals. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was in a position where I really should have been a more polished writer. Troy took me under his wing more or less. To be writing for someone of his caliber, I mean, everybody and their brother has done a Troy Seals song. Everybody and their brother that’s anybody in country music has written a song with Troy Seals. He and I wrote four or five songs together that got our names in the Library of Congress.
Jess – How old were you when you did that?
JMH – I was 18-years-old. I was young.
Jess – That’s an insane opportunity at that age.
JMH – I had no idea. Opportunity can be looking you right in the face and you just wave at it and walk right by. You don’t even know. You don’t even recognize that maybe God put this here in your path for this very moment in time. Opportunity is like that—and once it’s gone, honey, it’s gone.
Jess – What was the name of the publishing company you were working for back then?
JMH – It was called Danor Publishing. Another major player I used to write with occasionally was Don Goodman. Don was constantly getting cuts because he was writing with everybody. He couldn’t sing a lick, but he was a fair guitar player and a master of phrase. He worked with [country music singer and guitarist] Charlie Pride. I mentioned Troy [Seals] already. He is almost 80-years-old now. We’re just old people. I’m 59, so I’ve got a few songs left in me. I get letters from fans sometimes. See the [card with the] kangaroo holding a beer in his hand over here? That’s from Australia. That kangaroo is blitzed. [laughs] Here’s another one from a lady that traded me this Cherokee medicine bag, which I pack daily, for one of my CDs. So I must be doing something right for some people. I’m not in the mainstream, but it doesn’t matter. Everybody talks about the dream and all that, but I feel just really blessed, always have.
Jess – Some people have the wrong idea of what the dream really is, I think.
JMH – And those are the people, once they get there, don’t even know they are there—people like Lindsay Lohan who are constantly getting into trouble.
Jess – They could be doing so much more with their position of “power.” I was acting professionally for years, and when I was younger I thought, well the dream is to go to Hollywood and to “make it.” As years passed, I came to the realization that I do it because I enjoy it, not really because I’m trying to “make it.” The goal is to enjoy myself and allow other people to enjoy the play or the movie I’m performing in.
JMH – Exactly. When I write a song, if I know when I get to this one line that somebody is going to laugh or something like that, then I am able to reach out and touch someone.
I mentioned Emma to you earlier. She was one of the folks I met at the Bean Blossom Blues Festival who came down from Bloomington, Indiana to visit me at the cabin. These folks were fans of mine that had started coming to my shows. They would drive down here to hear me sing at different places. They come all the way from Bloomington to the Hanson Arts Festival [in Hanson, Kentucky] where I perform every year. Emma works for the University of Indiana and she is currently archiving my songs at the University under “Traditional Music.”
Jess – That’s cool. Those will be there forever.
JMH – Yeah, that is cool. That’ll be there as long as there is a University of Indiana anyway.
Jess – Even then, it’s going to end up somewhere, you know? [both laughing]
JMH – I sent Emma about 45 of my songs. We’ve been emailing back and forth. Emma is from Puerto Rico and, while living there, she learned music to the point where people that weren’t in her family were helping her out. They enjoyed seeing her desire and were celebrating her accomplishments. She spent quite a bit of money on a formal education in music. She plays such a wonderful violin. She even played with the Owensboro Symphony [Orchestra] at one time. But due to carrying the burden of trying to make better wages to pay off her loan, she lost her desire to play. I think she just got burned out on it, which was a shame. She told me that the day she got the loans from the college paid off, she put her violin away. I guess that’s why she was doing what she was doing—to pay the loans off. It wasn’t because she loved doing it anymore. After that, she got a regular job—a “straight job”—at the University. Her violin stayed in that case until ten years later when she brought it to the cabin. We sat down and she played a song with me. Is that not cool?
Jess – I bet you are a big reason why she was inspired to get her violin back out and pick it up again.
JMH – We started playing a song that I had written with Blake Temple. Blake actually gave me the chair you are sitting in. His wife wanted it out of the garage. [laughs] He’s originally from Texas. The song we wrote is called “Invisible.” The song is in D minor and doesn’t change. I thought it would be a good one for her. She started playing and Tammy just started bawling her eyes out. [laughs] Then Tammy’s boyfriend Andy started bawling his eyes out. I’m sitting here trying to sing this song and everybody in the damn place is crying.
Jess – That’s a moment you’ll never forget.
JMH – I specialize in moments you’ll never forget.
Jess – Are there other moments like that that stand out to you?
JMH – There are lots of moments that I’ll never forget. I was doing a thing up in Livermore, Kentucky with a group called Freewheelin. Now, I have written several gospel tunes throughout the years, spiritual type songs, and I played those at the show. Afterwards, this old man came up to me. I’ll never forget the look on his face. He said, “Mister, I want you to know that you are the best I have ever heard. You made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.” Wow. That’s doing the job, you know?
Back when I was writing for Danor Publishing, there were people in and out all the time. I mean there would be a knock on the door and there’d be [singer-songwriter] Donna Fargo, “The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA,” standing there. Dolly Parton, I never met her or anything, but her office was about three office buildings down from the publishing company. She’d just go on by and wave at me on the porch or something. And Waylon [Jennings], we were on a first name basis, because I was always hanging out, watching him. He hung out with this old disc jockey they called Captain Midnight. He had a radio show. He got Waylon quite a bit of airplay. Back then, that’s pretty much how that worked—still does sometimes. But Waylon was notorious for playing pinball machines. Now, these are not just pinball machines, these are pinball machines that give a pay-off.
Jess – You could win money?
JMH – Oh, hell yeah! Down at the Burger Boy—which was a burger joint that isn’t there anymore, although it should be, because it kept a lot of people alive with their grits and what have you—they had these two pinball machines in the back. I watched Waylon and Captain Midnight come in there one night, and Waylon ordered $40 worth of quarters. By daylight—this is in the wee hours of the morning starting out anyways—he walked out with over $400. That was his night job. [both laughing]
Jess – If you are that good at it, it should be!
JMH – It was amazing. I could not understand how he could do what he did. It looked like he was making love to that damn thing.
Jess – So, tell me about your favorite guitar?
JMH – This Taylor guitar [picking up a nearby acoustic guitar] is a very expensive guitar. In fact, Taylor sends me a magazine here called Wood and Steel. You can take that home with you. It’s the newest one. [JMH starts jamming on the Taylor] This song has not been recorded yet. [JMH proceeds to play a humorous song about drinking Georgia moonshine]
You know looks can be deceiving; it was only a pint.
It went off in my head like a stick of dynamite.
It crossed both minds and trampled my brain;
I know how it feels to be hit by a train.
Jess – I loved it so much!
JMH – [laughs] That’s a true story. [singer-songwriter] Tracy Nelson used to be with a band called Mother Earth. She had this farm up on Bear Creek Road—I think it burnt down finally—but she had an old cabin up there. It had a wood stove in it and all that. She had a few horses, so when her band went on the road they’d get me to watch the horses. One time, while they were out on the road, I found that pint of Georgia moonshine. It wasn’t very big. It was just a little pint. It was cold—the middle of winter—and I was there by myself, except for the dog, Katie. I thought, “Man, she’ll never miss this.” I was young and stupid I guess, because I sure drank it all up. So I’m sitting there, waiting for something to happen, and I swear it hit me. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t talk. I just lay down on the floor. I thought I was going to die. When it hit me, it hit me. I never will forget it. The dog kept licking me in the face and I was so out of it I couldn’t even get the dog away. It was below zero outside. I finally crawled to the door—seriously crawled. I started breathing some fresh air, and I guess that was my remedy for the whole situation, because I finally revived myself. But the dog kept licking my face [laughs] and I couldn’t even get the dog away. That’s a true story.
Jess – How long have you had that Taylor? It has a bold, pretty sound.
JMH – It was given to me by a man named Steve Ayers. He passed away a few years ago. He was a music director at First United Methodist Church [in Madisonville, KY]. Steve just had a heart of gold. He worked security with me [at the Regional Medical Center in Madisonville, KY], but on his weekends off he was working at ABBA Music in Henderson [Kentucky]. That is where he got this guitar. He traded work for the guitar. One night, he invited me over to his house and, while I was there, he asked me to play it. I said, “That is the greatest guitar that I’ve ever played.” I didn’t have my Alvarez with me, so he couldn’t hear my old Alvarez, which I’ve had for over 30 years. I told him, “That’s a great guitar,” and he said, “Well, it’s your guitar.” I looked over at his wife and said, “Is he ok?” She started crying. It was a beautiful moment. You know Jess, I could talk about some of the celebrities and so-called celebrities that I’ve spent time with, or I could tell you this story, which is just as important. Nobody had ever done something like that for me before. Steve told me, “God told me to do this. I’ve wrestled with it for a few months, but God told me to give you this guitar, so I’m just obeying what the Lord told me to do.” It was out of the blue. The only thing we can truly keep is what we give away. And the guitar, when I was singing at a lot of churches, got to have its own testimony. Somebody in the congregation would say, “Where’d you get that guitar?” They would want to know. So, I’d tell them.
Jess – Was the pickguard gone before you got it?
JMH – It’s not gone. It’s still there. It’s a clear pickguard. Go ahead and play it.
Jess – Well, I saw the outline of the pickguard. It looked like it had been removed. [Jess proceeds to play a song on the Taylor]
JMH – You did a great job! That’s a good song.
Jess – Thank you. I’ve played a ton of songs throughout the course of my life and forgotten so many. It’s crazy to think about.
JMH – [laughs] It is, isn’t it? I play music now with Warren “Rattlesnake” Jenkins—the old Cherokee. Warren plays guitar and we record over at Warren’s house sometimes. Sometimes we go up to the studio and lay down some tracks.
Jess – Is that local?
JMH – Yeah, Owlhead Productions. John Pate plays keyboard a lot. Mostly, John plays dobro for me, though. He’s one of the best dobro players around. I always use him as a dobro player when we go out and play anywhere.
Jess – Do you all have regular places that you play?
JMH – We used to. It’s been slow lately. The last gig we did was because of the coal mine songs that I’ve written. “Steel Toe Boots,” “Coal Miner’s Memorial Highway,” and “Pyro Man,” which is about the mine explosion that happened down in Waverly [Kentucky]. Plus, I work for the mines out there. I work for a security company out there monitoring air levels and keeping track of everything. It’s pretty amazing. You would not think coal mines and computers would go together, but with the technology today, I can pretty much fly the coal mine from where I sit. If the belts are going down, I can see where they are going down at. These things are miles and miles of distance underground. It may be 600 feet down, and it could go as far as ten miles in. Everything is on fiber optics or wireless sensors. Not only can my screen tell me where the belts are going down at, but I can look at that area and my computer will tell me what has caused it to go down. So, instead of a belt mechanic having to walk around trying to find out what’s wrong, I can send them right to the spot and they can be prepared for any situation.
As far as gigs go, I perform in Hanson [Kentucky] a couple times a year—in the spring and in the fall—at the Village Arts Festival and such. At the end of June, I perform at the Morton’s Gap Coal Field Festival [in Morton’s Gap, Kentucky]. I’ve been doing that every year for the last three or four years. Phyllis Winders built a stage just for me and my group, Southern Magic, to perform on at the Winders Farm Festival in October. We play every Saturday night from the end of September until the end of October. Those are some cold nights. [laughs]
Jess – Ok, now Luke [Short] told me to ask you a certain question while I was here. I’m supposed to ask you about the “magic couch.”
JMH – [laughs] Well, I’ll be darned. That old couch there, well, it’s not what you would think. [both laughing] There has just been a lot of creation to go on in this room, and I don’t know how it got its name as the “magic couch,” but Pat Ballard and I started the Hilltop Jamboree Traveling Road Show when Pat was sitting on the couch. J.T. Oglesby and I wrote two or three really good songs in this room while he was sitting there on that couch. During the ice storm [of 2009], Johnny Keyz even slept on the magic couch. He’s kind of like my son. He doesn’t call me James or Michael, he calls me dad, and I call him son. Johnny is a real talent; he really is. Now you’ve even sat on the magic couch!
Jess – What are your thoughts on the local music scene and how can it be improved?
JMH – Well, just doing stuff. It would be nice to have a place where we could go and maybe make a few dollars. Before Lioniel [Adams] went back to Louisiana, the Acoustic Café [Acoustic Coffee & Tea in Madisonville, KY] was a nice place to go. We had a good time. That’s the place where Pat [Ballard], J.T. [Oglesby], and myself used to play together a lot. In fact, J.T. had given up music. I had gone down to the music store [Backstreet Music in Madisonville, KY] and he was sitting there playing Mandolin. I saw his fingers move there for about five seconds and I told him, “Well, if you’re not doing anything this weekend, come on up and jam.” I had never met him before. I didn’t know who he was or anything. I just heard him for five seconds and told him he could sit in with me up there at the coffee shop, and he did. I think it kind of got him back into playing music.
Jess – That’s good, because his talent shouldn’t go wasted. He’s an exceptional musician.
JMH – I know. This is one of my favorite songs that he and I put together. [JMH starts up some music on his computer] It’s called “Highway 1.”
Jess – It almost has a Mumford & Sons vibe to it. Did you all record that here in town?
JMH – We recorded it at White Horse here in Hopkins County. It’s just the two guitars.
Jess – Who wrote the lyrics to it?
JMH – We both did.
Jess – How many CDs have you recorded?
JMH – I don’t know. Each one of those “empties” behind you holds a hundred, and they are all empty. [both laughing]
Jess – Is any of your music on ReverbNation?
JMH – I’ve got 17 songs on ReverbNation. None of my new stuff is on there. I’m number one in Madisonville for Americana. I’ll be a national treasure one day. [laughs]
Jess – I don’t doubt that at all. How long did it take you and J.T. to write this song? [“Highway 1” still playing in the background]
JMH – I don’t know. He left the idea and some lyrics that he had jotted down with me. I took it and polished it. See, that’s the thing about writing a song with people—you call the lines and then I polish it up. If your heart tells you you’re coppin’ out on a line, then you’re coppin’ out on a line, you know? Sometimes there is just something that will fit better.
Jess – That’s the great thing about collaboration, because something you might not see, somebody else will, or vice versa. [as “Highway 1” ends]
JMH – Absolutely. Here’s one called “Southern Magic.” [JMH starts up another song on his computer] This is all mine. I wrote it down at the cabin. That’s Alonzo Pennington playing with me. Alonzo is great. [JMH starts jamming on his Taylor along with the recording]
Jess – That’s catchy! I like that. Is that Alonzo singing harmony with you?
JMH – Yeah. We recorded that at Alonzo’s old house. He doesn’t live there anymore.
Jess – I’m addicted to that song Alonzo wrote called “If the Devil Danced in Empty Pockets.” I catch myself singing it all the time.
JMH – Oh yeah. Alonzo is very talented. Anyways, that’s the name of the band now, Southern Magic.
Now, beside the cabin down on the Green River, there’s a road that goes right alongside the cabin. You can see how it was cut by wagons a long time ago. At one time, that spot, before the cabin was there, was a central hub for commerce. There would be a steamboat, the “Crescent City,” coming up from New Orleans. There used to be a picture of it in the old [McLean County] courthouse. I don’t know if there still is or not, but the Crescent City would pick up the crops and what have you—the ones that the farmers would load on her—and then they’d send them off to market. It was an excellent means of transportation for that sort of thing in this area—at least in McLean County anyways. When I was telling Ron Bankley, who I mentioned to you earlier, about it, he started writing some stuff down. Ron’s a great song writer. J.T. is the one that introduced me to Ron. One hand feeds the other around here, in a way. [JMH selects a new song on his computer and the music starts playing] This is the song Ron and I came up with. It’s called “The Crescent City.” Ron’s from Canada. He came down to visit J.T. and I, and we wrote this. [JMH starts singing along with the recording] Alonzo produced this song.
Jess – Is that Alonzo playing the fiddle?
JMH – Yep. It sure is.
Jess – Do you ever play slide guitar?
JMH – I used to, years ago. I was good friends with [slide guitarist] Leroy Parnell and we would travel around together a lot. He was 18-years-old, playing with Panama [Red], and I was his road manager. I played cow bell every now and then in the band or whatever. [laughs] I ran sound and lights for them. We played some really nice clubs. In fact, we were on Nantucket Island for over a month. But, Leroy, he’s a famous slide guitar player with that old Gibson of his. He’s one of the best slide players I’ve ever been around as far as that goes. Leroy was a major star there for awhile. He was on the cutting edge, as they say. [“The Crescent City” finishes playing]
Jess – What do you love most about music?
JMH – Well, it’s almost spiritual with me a lot of times. Here’s the best way I can explain this—I was jamming up at the Bean Blossom with some friends of mine. Delta Don, from Evansville [Indiana], was up there at the Bean Blossom and we were at his camp. He’s a big fan of my music and he invited me up to his camp. So we were sitting around jamming, and this guitar player showed up with a guitar that he had made.
Jess – He had made it himself?
JMH – He made it himself. It was beautiful and black, with all the right stuff on it. It was an electric guitar. I was going to play “Old Songs” and I was trying to tell him the chord progressions. He was from Brazil. His sister was there, and I looked at her and said, “He doesn’t understand a word I’m saying, does he?” She told me that he didn’t understand. We started playing “Old Songs” and he fell right in there and never missed a lick. He knew when to take a break and didn’t walk on my lyrics or anything. That kind of just says it. Even though we couldn’t communicate verbally, we danced musically, beautifully. What is it, seven notes? God gave us seven notes to work with. You’ve gotta’ hear “Old Songs” because that song will pretty much explain how I feel about my song writing and the whole thing. [JMH starts “Old Songs” up on his computer]
Sometimes life ain’t fair, sometimes it’s tough when you find someone who cares.
But love ain’t enough, pick-up the pieces and start over again.
You just might find an old song to be your best friend.
You can hide away in a memory. You can fly away on a melody.
You can sing along in harmony. Old songs can set you free.
If you’re driving down the highway, turn on your radio.
Set your speed on cruise, let a song take control.
When you get to where you’re going, by then you'll know.
Old songs are good for your soul.
If you've lost somebody, and they’ve moved on - maybe to heaven or places unknown.
When times get hard they can make you strong.
Ain’t nothing going to make you feel something like an old song.
Old songs playing on your radio, old songs so good for your soul,
old songs there's one thing I know,
ain’t nothing going to make you feel something like an old song,
they can set you free, old songs, they can set you free”.
JMH – This was recorded across the street. The guy playing keyboard is Ricky Burnside.
Jess – Did you all write it together, or is this one of yours?
JMH – This is my song. I wrote it. The girls singing back-up are the Holt sisters. This was the first time they’d ever recorded in a studio. Pat [Ballard] plays it on the radio [WKTG/WFMW] every now and then. I have a song called “Run That Turkey Down” and Pat plays it on the radio every Thanksgiving. Pat’s a real talent and a good friend. I haven’t done any writing with Pat yet. I figure, somewhere in time we will probably get around to it. [“Old Songs” finishes playing]
I’m going to play you one of my coal mine songs. This song is called “Steel Toe Boots” and they played it on a daily basis on WFMW. Here it is. [JMH starts up “Steel Toe Boots” on his computer] It’s a coal mine song written at the guard shack at the mines.
Jess – Who all is on this recording?
JMH – Jeff Cunningham was a co-writer on this. He’s an old coal mine friend of mine.
Jess – Does your band have a Facebook page?
JMH – We have a fan page that one of my fans set up.
“If there’s a coal mine in heaven when the good Lord takes my soul, I’ll be wearing steel toe boots on streets of gold.”
Jess – Pat plays that on the radio, too?
JMH – Yeah. Also, there is a radio station in Carlisle, Illinois that has been playing it.
Jess – That’s awesome that your music is getting played on the radio. Just hearing music has such an effect on a person. I love it, all the stuff you’ve played for me today. It’s really amazing stuff. [“Steel Toe Boots” finishes playing]
JMH – I’ve been writing a long time. Like I’ve said before, I credit a lot of it to writing with Troy [Seals] and Don [Goodman] at Danor Publishing. [songwriter] Will Jennings was there, too. I guess, through the [Eric] Clapton Connection with “I’ve Got a Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart,” Will ended up going out and writing with [singer-songwriter] Steve Winwood, the legend. He also helped write the lyrics to “Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton. Will helped Clapton polish up that song. At one point in time, I was in one office at the publishing company and he was in another office working on this song called “There’s a Party in my Heart.” Well, I had started this song in my office over there, and I accused him at the coffee pot. I said, “Will, those are some lines that I’m using over there.” You know what he said to me? “You’ve got to get them where you can!” [laughs] Hey, at least he was honest about it. One of the greatest songs Will ever put together was “Up Where We Belong.” Joe Cocker had a major hit on that.
Jess – What inspires you, musically?
JMH – Remember that song I played you earlier, “I’ll Never Drink Georgia Moonshine Again?” I was just down at the cabin thinking about how that experience and that pint of Georgia moonshine, even though there was no one was around, would make for a funny song. From time-to-time I would tell the story and would always put Katie [the dog] in there. Katie’s on the front of [singer-songwriter] Dobie Grey’s album, Drift Away. Katie, she wasn’t a coon dog, but I took poetic license I think. I thought it would be better to work a coon dog into that song. I was around when Dobie recorded the song “Drift Away.” I was in the studio and [songwriter and producer] Mentor Williams, who was producing the album, had come to the publishing company looking for material. Mentor wrote the song “Drift Away” on the airplane ride coming to visit us at Danor Publishing from L.A. to Nashville. That is how that song came about. [JMH and Jess start singing]. “Give me the beat boys and free my soul, I wanna’ get lost in your rock and roll, and drift away.” So Mentor was producing the album and I just sat there in the office and played my legs to it, you know? Later on, when Mentor was doing the album, I got to do some of the handclaps when he was recording the song. I'm not sure if they made the final cut or not.
One time, I wrote a word into a song that Troy [Seals] was working on. He said, “Michael, I need a rhyming word for smile.” I said, “Worthwhile,” and it got to be in a song called “We Had It All” in the third verse. He and Donny Fritts, who played piano for Kris Kristofferson at the time, both wrote that song. We called Donnie “Funky Fritts,” because his hair was everywhere. In fact, he was in a movie [Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid] with [Bob] Dylan. I think Dylan and [director] Sam Pechinpah got some of them down in Nashville to do that
You know, I’ve had an interesting life, but here I am in Madisonville, Kentucky, “the best town on earth.” It is the best. I tell people, you know, you’ll be driving down the road and people will let you pull out if you need to get into a line of traffic. People say, “You’ve got to be kidding me! In this day and age?” Before you know it, you’re doing the same thing.
Jess – I’ve never been anywhere else where that happens.
JMH – Madisonville has got some great qualities and there is some great local talent here. I’ve performed at the Pennington Folk Festival in Princeton [Kentucky]. Alonzo [Pennington] asked me to do that one year and that went real well. There are lots of local events that I really enjoy doing. I wish that was all I had to do. I can write and do all that, but as far as the business end of it, I could care less. The only reason my songs are on ReverbNation and YouTube is because of a lady by the name of Debbie Jones. She had asked me if there was anything she could ever do. I said, “Well, I’d like to get my songs on the internet.” This was several years ago. She loved my music enough to fly all the way from North Carolina to help me out with that. She didn’t charge me anything to help me get my songs out there. I have people like that. Like that lady there from Australia who sent me that card. That was a thrill for her to get one of my CDs. She also sent me a stuffed kangaroo along with that card. I gave to my grandson, my daughter Tracy’s son. Tracy and I have worked on a few songs.
Jess – Does Tracy play the guitar too?
JMH – No. I’ve always wanted her to pick it up, though. One thing she does have is my gift of phrase.
Jess – How many kids do you have?
JMH – Two. Jennifer and Tracy. They are both over in McLean County.
Jess – Are you married?
JMH – I have been, twice. The first time I was married for almost 20 years. The second time, about four months—as far as living together. We were married a little bit longer than that. Bad luck I guess. As [singer-songwriter] Billy Joe Shaver once told me, “It’s bad luck to be superstitious.” [laughs] I was an acquaintance with Billy Joe. Billy Joe was one of the greatest song writers I’ve ever met. We would hang out sometimes at the Exit/In Club [in Nashville] with David Briggs, who was a producer and keyboard player back then. “Big David” actually used to fly around with Elvis [Presley] and play keyboard for him. He produced a lot of albums. A lot of the stuff that came into Quadrafonic Sound Studios [now known as Quad Studios in Nashville], was either from Norbert Putnam or David Briggs. They both owned Danor Publishing. They took the “Da” out of David and the “Nor” out of Norbert and named it Danor. That’s how the company got its name. Some good songs came out of it, though, because they had writers like Troy Seals, who was related to Dan Seals. He brought his Cincinnati bunch out to Nashville to work with us. [Guitarist] Lonnie Mack was good friends with Troy. That’s the thing about music, too; it’s like one big family that you’ve never met. It really is. I mean, even when I was thanking that kid from Brazil, telling him he was doing a great job, it was like he knew what I was saying. His sister was telling him, too, but you could tell that he understood. Maybe it was the tone of my voice. I don’t know.
Jess – As a community, we all need to work together to create that kind of an atmosphere—more of a family atmosphere where people are working together, instead of butting heads. Music shouldn’t be competitive.
JMH – You’re right. It shouldn’t be, but it is. It’s a dog-eat-dog world. “You gotta’ watch out who you sell your soul to because everybody wants to screw you. Do anything to remain alive and just make sure that you survive, and maybe one day you’ll get to be top dog.” [laughs] David Gillum—what a great songwriter.
Earlier I was telling you about Warren “Rattlesnake” Jenkins. Well, he also does traditional Cherokee funerals and stuff—you know, beating on the drums. The funeral directors hate it [laughs] because he plays drums the whole time. He’s different. He’s been teaching me Cherokee. We’re not really Indian, but “Indian” is a state of mind I think, as far as the spirituality of being Native American.
Jess – I feel you always get in that mindset when you are out in nature. I love hiking in the woods, and anytime I’m outside like that I am able to just embrace all that is around me.
JMH – I have seven crows that I feed. I feed seven crows at the mine where I work.
Jess – Luke [Short] is obsessed with crows, and it feels like everywhere we go together there is always a crow hanging around. He calls them all Edgar.
JMH - I call them all Roscoe, except for one that I call Rueben. Rueben is always looking for a hawk or something. He’s so paranoid he can’t even eat the biscuits that I throw out. He’s constantly looking for something to come get him.
With spirituality, I used to sing at a lot of churches. I’m a completely different person than I used to be. Some of the ugliest things I’ve ever seen took place in church—as far as attitudes and such. When a church splits, you’re going to have people on both sides, and it’s nasty. I’ve seen churches split over the clock on the wall. People were used to looking in the back to see what time it was. The pastor didn’t like it, so he took the clock down. It had been there as long as the church had been there. The clock came back and the church left. The pastor left.
I believe in God because something is out there listening to me. I was actually baptized in a horse trough. I’ve been sprinkled as a Methodist and baptized as a Pentecostal in a horse trough.
Let me play you a couple more songs, this is a song called “Thank God for Friends” that my daughter Tracy and I put together. [JMH starts up “Thank God for Friends” on his computer] That’s Ricky [Burnside] on keyboard, from across the street. There’s an old coalminer that lives around here called “Happy Jack.” He’s retired from the mines now, but this is his favorite song in the whole world. Not just his favorite song of mine, but of all the songs in the world. That’s his favorite song, and I cannot not sing it if he’s there in the audience. He will come a lot of times just to hear that song, and I always know to just sing it if he’s there. He will cry every time. He told me, he said, “Every time you sing that song, I think about my brother who passed away. He was my best friend.”
Jess – It’s cool to think about how people perceive art. I mean, you paint a picture and everybody sees something different. You had no idea when you were painting what anybody else would see in it. So, you write a song. You never knew it was going to be this guy’s favorite song in the whole world and that it would remind him of his brother.
JMH – I know, and the man that asked me to write this song, Randy [Herrick], passed away. Randy owned Backstreet Music. He passed away a couple of years ago. He asked me to write this song called “Thank God for Friends.” So, I did. Then I took what I had to my daughter, Tracy. She said, “Dad, really, that sucks.” [laughs]
Jess – Leave it to your kids. [laughs]
JMH – I’m glad you got to hear the story about Happy Jack because you just never know, with even a “God bless” during the day or whatever, how you’re going to affect somebody. I tell you, don’t ever discard your muses, because they will guide you through some projects and take you to places you’ve never been, but need to be, in a song.
To listen to James' music right now, simply click a track found in the ReverbNation player attached below this article. You also can find James Michael Harris on on YouTube by clicking here.
You can contact James Michael Harris on Facebook by clicking here.
Sugg Street Post
Written by Jessica Dockrey
Photos by Jessi Smith
- James Michael Harris
- Madisonville, KY
- Kris Kristofferson
- Ron Bankley
- Johnny Cash
- Ronnie Latham
- Monty Latham
- Jim Latham
- Cody Clutchman
- Dolly Parton
- Louie Dickerson
- Troy Seals
- Danor Publishing
- Danor Publishing Company
- Don Goodman
- Charlie Pride
- Bean Blossom Blues Festival
- Hanson Arts Festival
- Blake Temple
- Donna Fargo
- Waylon Jennings
- Captain Midnight
- Tracy Nelson
- Mother Earth
- Steve Ayers
- Owlhead Productions
- John Pate
- Morton's Gap Coal Field Festival
- Winder's Farm Festival
- Pat Ballard
- Hilltop Jamboree Traveling Road Show
- JT Oglesby
- johnny keyz
- Southern Magic
- Alonzo Pennington
- Green River
- Panama Red
- Delta Don
- Ricky Burnside
- Jeff Cunningham
- Will Jennings
- Eric Clapton
- Joe Cocker
- Dobie Grey
- Mentor Williams
- Donny Fritts
- Bob Dylan
- Sam Pechinpah
- Pennington Folk Festival
- Billy Joe Shaver
- David Briggs
- Elvis Presley
- Norbert Putnam
- Lonnie Mack
- Dan Seals
- Randy Herrick
- Quadrafonic Sound Studio
- Quad Studios
- Leroy Parnell
- Tom Ghent
- David Gillon