For Jimmy LaFave, the deep ochre landscape of Oklahoma isn't a metaphor. It's flat-out home, giving him a kinship with songwriters from that region ranging from Woody Guthrie to Leon Russell. LaFave, who now makes his home in America's alt.country capital of Austin, Texas, grew up a little farther north in Stillwater. His latest album, Texoma, celebrates the "red dirt music" of this heartland.
"It's that J.J. Cale-Leon Russell sound that Eric Clapton mined," LaFave explains. "They call it 'red dirt music' around Stillwater and Tulsa. If you made it into a pie chart, it would be a little more Oklahoma than Texas. Jimmy Webb's an Oklahoma songwriter, 'Wichita Lineman,' 'Galveston.' Another big influence is Woody Guthrie. It's all part of that Texoma thing."
Guthrie's family selected LaFave to appear at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "Tribute to Woody Guthrie." He twice was named "Best Singer/Songwriter" at the Austin Music Awards.
LaFave's music has a plain-spoken quality, a directness that is simple and true. His full-of-life sound goes from tender ballads to rockabilly shuffle, with some roadhouse blues and a little Dylan thrown in.
"As far as vocal phrasing, I learned a lot from Dylan," he says. "People might think that's the last person that you would talk about as a vocalist, but I like how he phrases things, how he sings behind the beat."
LaFave's voice has a raspy dustbowl overtone that adds texture, especially to his gentler songs. "I like everything from Frank Sinatra to Van Morrison," he says. "Jackson Browne is one of my favorite singers."
His voice also has been compared to that of folksinger Steve Forbert. "He's actually a friend of mine, so I enjoy that. I can see it, that kind of tenor with a rough edge to it," LaFave agrees.
LaFave settled in Austin 15 years ago. "A lot of the reason I moved to Austin is the tradition of the Texas songwriters," he explains. "There are some great writers here, from Shawn Colvin to James McMurtry. It's not your Nashville formula writing or your L.A. pop."
In fact, however, LaFave tends to write his music away from home.
"I do most of my writing while I'm on the road," he admits. "It kind of reflects in all my records. I feel that my creative mind opens up more when I get out traveling and see different imagery. Seeing different images gets things going for me. If I had to sit in a room and try to dream up songs or scenarios for songs, well, that just isn't very appealing to me."
Collaborating with his fellow songwriters hasn't quite worked either, because of his touring schedule. "I've tried a few things locally, but it's probably not one of my strongest assets," he concedes. "A lot of stuff that I don't do is just a matter of time. At one time I had a publishing deal and I could collaborate with the staff writers, but I just never had time to get up to L.A. to do it. I was just too busy with other projects."
How does LaFave go about creating songs like "Elvis Loved His Mama" or "Bad, Bad Girl?" He says, "Usually when I'm writing, I'll get the melody in my head and I've got one of those pocket tape recorders and I'll hum the melody. I don't have any formal music training. Some songs just pop into your head and you can write them in 20 minutes. Some you have to work for a couple of years until you feel like its finished. 'Never Is a Moment' was a fast one, riding down the highway. 'This Glorious Day,' I started that one a couple of years ago."
LaFave spends much of his life on the road with his band. "We don't try to play every night," he says, describing how they will go miles out of their way to find America's vanishing treasures. "We like to travel the back roads," he says. "We ended up a couple of weeks ago where they did 'Field of Dreams.' It's pretty isolated out in the country and we ran around the base paths and hung out. We also stopped at Alpine Valley where Stevie Ray was killed. We were in Chicago last week and had some great Italian food that you just can't replicate in the South."
Now 45 years old, LaFave is finding the rhythms of his life to be more like an easy Oklahoma groove. At home, he's just a good ol' boy, likely to spend the day relaxing with his dog, walking by the creek and swimming. "I'm your everyday normal guy," he says. "For me, it's been pretty easy. I never went to college. I always played music and worked part-time jobs until I could do what I wanted to do. It's definitely the path I'm on and I'm enjoying it."
It's at the end of the day as he gets ready to sleep that inspiration often comes to him.
"I grew up when you'd take the transistor radio and hide it under your pillow and listen to everything," he admits. "You know how you hear music in your head while you're falling asleep? You relax and you can hear the whole song, like you're tapping into another dimension, some kind of weird radio. The bulk of the stuff, you have a melody and a couple of lines and you just kinda work it and it becomes clear to you."
Jimmy LaFave and his band headline the 16th Annual Tucson Folk Festival. The Festival in downtown Tucson's El Presidio Park runs Saturday, May 5, from Noon to 10 p.m. and Sunday, May 6, from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. LaFave and company perform on the Plaza Stage at 9 p.m. Saturday and again at 8 p.m. Sunday. The Festival, sponsored by the Tucson Kitchen Musicians Association, is free.