The Honky Tonkin’ Truth
In the ‘80s, the Gary Gentry and J.B Detterline Jr. penned song “The Ride,” a hit for David Allan Coe, told of a hitchhiker headed to Nashville who was picked up in a vintage Cadillac driven by the ghost of Hank Williams.
Although his sonorous voice may evoke similar spirits of classic country music, Texas-based singer-songwriter Jason James is flesh and blood. With his latest release, Seems Like Tears Ago, James showcases a collection of songs echoing the essence of pure jukebox-ready country music.
Given the bedrock authenticity of his sound, it might seem improbable that earlier influences included Butthole Surfers-era punk. “I did rock for a long time, but I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t happy. I was hanging out with my dad again, who I hadn’t seen in forever, and he put on some old Hank Williams. He said, ‘Yeah, I know you’re having some trouble, but do you remember this?’ And I knew every song. God almighty—it was talking to me.” James brought some Hank Williams songs to his rock band. “That was the turning point. They thought that I’d lost my mind…and I had.”
To advance his music career, James had moved from Texas City, TX, a refinery town on the shoreline of Galveston Bay, to Austin. He has since returned to his hometown. “I left to do music and that was my way to not go to work in the refineries, but I ended back here anyway. Working-class people—I dig the hell out of them.”
He says that being isolated is helpful to his songwriting. “I can come over here to my folks’ place, sit on the back patio and write all day if I want. When I was living in Austin, I was writing too, but Lord, I was keeping up the pace of living in Austin—we didn’t sleep very much.”
Jason James’ initial release was on New West Records. The company suggested that he sound “less traditional.” James is now an indie artist with his own label and tours extensively in the Lone Star State. “When I was signed with New West we had some tours, but nothing went through. I knew I could stay down here and make some kind of a living.”
As a songwriter, James is true to the craft as he balances heartbreak with tongue-in-cheek phraseology. On the title track, he bemoans lost love singing “You left these arms of mine/You find more comfort in the warmth of the wine.” He taps his Texas dancehall roots for “Cry on the Bayou” and “We’re Gonna Honky Tonk Tonight,” songs made for dancing. “There are some good dancers,” James says. “But it’s mostly an older generation. I don’t see as many younger ones. By the same token, different people have different ways of enjoying music. Some folks like to just sit back and listen. For the longest time I liked playing listening rooms, but I wasn’t hearing beer bottles clanking and falling, and I didn’t know what to do with myself.”
He penned all of the songs on Seems Like Tears Ago by himself. “I honestly don’t know where it all comes from. I know it sounds stupid, or like I’m putting it up to be strange, but that is the mystery of writing. I’m always writing. Some of these topics are old school standards. But they still can be relatable, without being rehashed too much. I go for a universal feeling. If you talk about emotions, those don’t change. Everyone has had to have felt that way, otherwise, there’d be no country records sold.”
Amidst the heartbreak, cheating and liquored-up lovers, he inserts the gorgeous “Simply Divine,” annotated with sweeping pedal steel. “The steel can be sonic tears, where you have to roll your pants legs up because you’re flooding the studio,” he avows.
Plans are underway for Jason James to perform select dates in other cities. As he concludes, “I want to make a living writing country music and see the folks around the world, turn them on to traditional music, and remind them it’s still here, and it’s not going anywhere.”