Born in Houston and based in LA, baby-faced singer/songwriter and classically-trained composer Jason Hawk Harris is a new name but, judging by his debut album, Love & The Dark, a follow on from his 2017 EP Formaldehyde, Tobacco and Tulips, it won’t be long before it’s one people will be very familiar with.
He’s certainly conversant with the latter half of the title. While putting the album together his mother died from complications of alcoholism; his father went bankrupt after being sued by the King of Morocco; and his sister was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and gave birth to a premature son with cerebral palsy. And that’s without dealing with his own addiction demons. As you might expect, all this has found its way into the music, something he describes as “Americana grief-grass”, an album that bears traces of John Moreland and Steve Earle as well as the old school country music he discovered as a teenager.
It opens in powerful form with the slow waltzing paranoia-fuelled ‘The Smoke And The Stars’, the initial drone giving way to ruminative guitar strumming and what sounds like the musical equivalent of comets streaking across the sky as, in a plaintive ache of a voice he sings “Tell me how was I supposed to know that they’d latch on to me and never let go?” on a lyric seeks rescue and redemption “Baby please get these stains off of me”) before it erupts into a full sonic storm.
From here he shifts into the drinking to forget (“if I drink enough‚ at least I’ll sleep”) honky tonk stomp mode with ‘Cussing At The Light’ on which he’s joined on harmonies by Natalie Nicoles, heading down a bluegrass lined path with the rowdy foot stomping Confused, a relationship song about mixed up feelings (“why can’t I be in love and be confused?”) that also takes in some fine saloon piano boogie.
Another uptempo track rooted in classic country, ‘Giving In’ addresses alcoholism as a means to numb the pain (“I gotta get this Bulleit from the bottle to my brain/ If I had a needle I would put it in my veins”) and trying to quit, a song he says was born out of his parents’ relationship and growing up with loving but alcoholic mother who never managed to stick to her resolutions to quit.
His mother eventually died as a result, and the emotionally plangent five-minute slow sway ‘Phantom Limb’, a song of loss that, featuring Rachel Baiman on vocals, recalls her funeral as he talks of his shirt that “Smells like the viewing/ Formaldehyde, tobacco and tulips/ I’ve washed it ten times, and it won’t come out” and how “I feel your fingers comb through my hair/Open my eyes and there’s no one there”. It’s hard to listen to the stark declaration “mother you’re dead” just before it launches into another muscular instrumental swell. Heading into the gospel honky tonk, pedal steel in tow, ‘Blessed Interruption’ picks up on the image with the lines “When they lower her down/In a clockwise motion, now/It can’t be too slow and it can’t be too fast”.
Likewise concerning his mother’s death, there’s a strikingly poignant note on the album’s nervy guitar and piano closing track, ‘Grandfather’, a dream in which he visits the old man at the Pearly Gates and asking if his mother is there too, the song written before her passing and going on, as his grandfather’s voice takes over to also reference the killing of 90 fans during the Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan in France before its lengthy instrumental play out.
It’s not all so heavy. There may be mortality and revival angst to the religion-themed ‘I’m Afraid’ (“No monster ever scared me like the face of Jesus Christ”) but it rattles along with the sort of country punk urgency (yet more piano boogie) pioneered by Jason and the Scorchers as he notes “Buddy‚ you can’t be too careful when it comes to Holy Ghosts”, while ‘Red Room Blues’, which again features Baiman, is pure roots pop rockabilly even if the lyrics, which seems to be about going cold turkey, aren’t exactly candyfloss as he sings “Watch the godless and the goodies tear each other down/I can hear their chomping jowels, bitch I love that sound”.
Death, drink, mothers, redemption, and God, Harris certainly ticks the boxes of country music staples (no trucks or dogs though), but the very personal rawness here is never a case of going through the motions. The search for the next Jason Isbell ends here.
Artist’s website: www.jasonhawkharris.com
‘Cussing At The Light’ – official video: