- Brad Buchholz American-Statesman Staff
Whenever singer Jimmy LaFave talks about his new album, “Depending on the Distance,” he likes to linger in the beauty of its title. All understanding, he suggests, relates to perspective — which is forever changing, informed by the distance we’ve traveled through time, geography, maturity.
“Sometimes you’re just too close to the picture,” says LaFave, one of the most sensitive voices in Austin’s singer-songwriter community. “You can’t see things clearly unless you stand outside of it.”
LaFave’s new songs look at love, longing, nostalgia, remembrance, romantic closure, even religious dogma, through the filter of distance. Occasionally, the songs are about the condition of distance – like the couple struggling against emotional distance in the tune “Talk to Me.” More frequently: They’re about the clarity that comes with distance.
As it turns out, Jimmy LaFave has walked quite a distance in his own life of late. Since his last studio release — “Cimarron Manifesto” — LaFave has co-founded his own record label (2007), suffered a stroke (in 2010) and survived a major auto accident (in 2012). At 57, he’s increasingly aware of time and fragility.
LaFave is not an autobiographical artist. The stroke, the accident, are not referenced in any songs on “Depending on the Distance.” He is still, perhaps, standing too close to the picture. But you can feel the impact of his life experience in the album’s tone. It’s quiet, reflective, unrushed — and vivid as a violet Austin sunset. LaFave’s friends feel a palpable sense of vulnerability in the music.
“After a stroke, you definitely see your mortality. And after the auto accident, I find myself counting my blessings,” says LaFave, sitting in his woody, barn-like offices of his Music Road record label in South Austin. “And I’m sure it comes through on the record in ways I don’t even know.”
“I think it has made me relax more, if anything. As in: Life is short. Just relax. Enjoy it. Do what you want to do. It has made me slow down.”
Ribbons of Highway
Jimmy LaFave’s vulnerability is more obvious on stage than in the office. Without his guitar, he’s more the Regular Guy — talking in rapid sentence fragments, quick to laughter. He totes a super-size plastic drinking cup around the studio, rarely drinking water from the straw, but jangling the ice and fidgeting with the cup as if were a substitute for Greek worry beads.
LaFave is clearly proud of Music Road — which has released a string of fine albums by songwriters Slaid Cleaves, Sam Baker, Kevin Welch, guitarist John Inmon and the band Stonehoney. The Music Road artists see themselves as a collection of friends. One of the label’s first releases: “Ribbon of Highway Endless Skyway,” a 2008 live album celebrating the legacy of Woody Guthrie that features performances by LaFave, Eliza Gilkyson and Pete Seeger, along with spoken-word passages from Guthrie’s writings
Through it all, LaFave has been touring with this Guthrie roadshow for so long that Woody’s voice has almost become one with his own. His take on the election? Guthrie didn’t think the essential conflict wasn’t so much Republican or Democrat, says LaFave, as much as it was about “close mind or open mind.”
LaFave’s walk down Music Road began when one of his biggest and most enduring fans — oil pipeline magnate Kelcy Warren, from Dallas — offered to support the enterprise. Warren, whose net worth was recently reported at $2.3 billion, is the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, which recently completed a high-profile purchase of Sunoco Oil. He’s an oil man, a supporter of Gov. Rick Perry, at the same time invested in the legacy of Woody Guthrie.
“Kelcy’s the kind of guy who could hire the Rolling Stones to play his parties. Instead, he’s hiring Paul Thorn or Jimmy LaFave, supporting the vagabonds,” says LaFave, whose freindship with Warren goes back 17 years. “It’s been a real blessing to have met someone who believes in music and art, who can help us do what we want to do.”
As part of Music Road’s original business strategy, Warren and LaFave purchased Cedar Creek Studios in South Austin — allowing the label to support itself in part through recording studio income. Artists ranging from Shawn Colvin and Betty Soo have used the space, independently. Jessica Simpson filmed part of a Christmas special here. The next big project: A tribute to Jackson Browne, featuring guest artists Don Henley, Bruce Hornsby, Lucinda Williams and Shawn Colvin.
Off the Road
Jimmy LaFave’s first thought upon suffering stroke symptons — slurred speech, and the loss of all feeling in his left arm — was not to panic his young son, Jackson . It was Dec. 17, 2010. His wife was out of town. He was at home, alone, with the boy. Cooly, he picked up the phone, called the office. Ashley Warren, Kelcy’s cousin, who runs most of the label’s business affairs, drove him to the hospital. LaFave stayed there, for the next 10 days.
“The stroke was caused by a blocked carotid artery on the right side of my neck,” says LaFave. “At first, my arm didn’t work after the stroke. But within a few weeks, I was moving my fingers again. And I don’t seem to have any memory loss. So I feel lucky, because I’ve known other people who had more residual damage.”
The auto accident: May, 2012. LaFave was driving in his van on Interstate 37, south of San Antonio, on a sunny afternoon, en route to a show in Corpus Christi. Once again, Ashley Warren was with him, riding in the passenger seat. Traffic slowed, suddenly. There had been an accident. A motorcyclist down. An ambulance on the scene. Cars weaving, merging into a single lane.
While slowing to a stop, LaFave was hit from the rear — sending his van somersaulting forward, then tumbling sideways from the far left lane across all lanes of traffic into the grassy median to the right. “We were pretty much blindsided,” recalls LaFave, who was knocked out by the impact. “And the way the roof crashed it, Ashley was almost crushed.”
“We were told they moved the ambulance forward an instant before we were hit,” says Ashley Warren. “Otherwise, we would have plowed right into it.” Both Warren and LaFave were airlifted to a San Antonio hospital, shaken, beat up — Warren had neck injuries, underwent hand surgery — but thankful for the miracle of being alive.
“Something in Jimmy has changed. He’s focusing more, challenging himself more,” says Ashley Warren. “There’s a tendency, when something like this happen, to cut out the ‘extra’ in life — whether it’s drama or the presence of inauthenticity — and get to the core of what’s really important.”
In the soft stage light of the Cactus Cafe, Jimmy LaFave tells the audience that a friend is in the house tonight, Guy Sprague, a long-time family friend from Oklahoma. And then, suddenly, he just stops talking. He bows his head, starts to choke up. “This has never happened to me before,” he tells the audience, overwhelmed, and surprised by his own awareness of it. “I’m sorry. … I can’t do this …”
For at least two minutes he’s unable to speak, even as members from the audience whisper kind support to him. Finally … finally … LaFave explains that George Sprague — Guy’s brother — was one his dearest friends. That decades ago, Jimmy was to be the best man at his wedding, until George was killed in an auto accident. LaFave hadn’t seen Guy Sprague in years. Now, suddenly, there was no distance separating him from grief and death and love.
As a tribute to his friend, LaFave performed his version of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Remember You” — one of the standout songs from “Depending on the Distance.” Bent low over his guitar, eyes closed, LaFave sings it straight, stripped down, on this August night. No acrobatics. All conviction, all sincerity. Honoring Dylan. Transcending Dylan. He sings: “When I’m all alone, in the great unknown, I will remember you.”
“I had no idea how much hidden sorrow I had about that,” Jimmy LaFave says today, looking back. “But when you get to be our age, you start to look at things a little differently.”