Jason James: Interview

Jason James is in the next generation carrying on the great honky tonk tradition. He writes and performs his own original music and really keeps his music full of integrity and honesty. He is also a tireless performer. And by the way, his new album, Seems Like Tears Ago, came out on October 4th. We really hit off well and I definitely made a new friend. We talk about music, barbeque, waking up in a strange hotel, and many other interesting topics.
JJ – Jason James                                         TL – TwangriLa
TL: I’m speaking with Jason James from Texas City, Texas down in the Gulf of Mexico. I hope you made it through the storm okay.
JJ: We got very lucky. I tell you. It got Houston a lot worse than it did down here.
TL: So I want to congratulate you on your new album. I’ve been listening to it a lot and I love it.
JJ: Well thank you so much. That means a lot to me. I think it’s a collection of some really good songs. I’m glad I could get them out.
TL: It says they are original songs, but I swear everyone sounds so familiar. Like an old friend, like I’ve heard them before.
JJ: That means the world to me. That’s kind of what I write out of is the universal experience, I kind of want them to relate to yah. I don’t get too crazy with them. They’re pretty straight up and down honky tonk stuff.
TL: Exactly. And that’s what draws people to your music. It’s that honesty.
JJ: Well, I agree. Anything worth listening to has to have truth. If there’s truth, it’s good music.
TL: That’s what my website’s all about.
JJ: I’m familiar with your website. I love it.
TL: Oh, thank you very much. I appreciate that. So, how do you write songs with such tragedy and heartbreak? I hope you didn’t experience all this stuff yourself.
JJ: (laughter) Well, I think it, every story might not be exactly what it is, but I definitely draw from a feeling whatever it is. I know that John Evans, my producer, he’s called me a method actor. Whenever I go in there, I just try to become the character that I’ve written about.
TL: Did you channel any George Jones? Because I think I hear a little bit of old George on some of those songs.
JJ: There’s definitely some George Jones in there. I tell yah—I really am just a huge fan of Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, and Wynn Stewart. They’re kind of all in there. George Jones is from 40 miles up the road. He’s less than an hour away Beaumont, Texas.
TL: I’m watching the Ken Burns documentary right now. Every one of your songs could fit in perfectly in that documentary.
JJ: Well, that makes me feel good.
TL: It makes me feel good to listen. Like Charley Pride said, you might cry, but eventually you’re going to feel better.
JJ: That’s a hundred percent correct. That’s why I’ve really fallen in love with country music. Like the pledge Buck Owens made to country music that he put out in Nashville on a billboard. I brought that up to people before, and how many people could honestly take that pledge nowadays.
TL: So what was his pledge?
JJ: Buck was hitting it pretty hot by then and was coming out hit after hit and he put out a pledge to country saying that, “I will always be country. I’ll never turn my back on country music.”
TL: The music business model now is more about marketing a star than it is to put out high quality music.
JJ: Look at Loretta Lynn, I mean that’s as character as you can get. It was real, though. She was talking about real life. I think that we have lost a lot of honesty in country music and I just wish that we could see more of that.
TL: I think it’s coming. I do, I think what they call country music now, and it’s so bland and just nothing to it. I think people are starting to get turned off by it.
JJ: I think so too. You know, you can’t fool people for very long. Eventually, the truth is gonna come out and that’s going to shine through. So you just got to keep doing what you do. I don’t even worry about it anymore. I am releasing the records I want to release. I don’t have anybody telling me what to do. I’m running my own label now, which is stressful in its own right.
TL: Congratulations on that.
JJ: Well, thanks. I’ll tell you what, it was a big leap and we were supposed to have the record out last year and it just wasn’t the right time. I didn’t force it. You’re never completely ready 100 percent, but I had to get close enough to where this thing just wouldn’t fumble.
TL: I get it. You did the right thing. Sometimes discipline is the best remedy.
JJ: I know. And I’m so impatient about things at times too.
TL: Once you’re finished something, you want to get it out there. You don’t want to sit on it.
JJ: Exactly. And I was already working on something else. I’ve already got another album worked out.  I’m writing constantly. I just wish I could get them out fast enough.
TL: (laughter) I guess then my next question would be, so after this album is released, when will the next one come out? A year after?
JJ: I’d like to put two things out a year. I would like to put out one record every year of my own stuff and then maybe do a tribute album or do something like that. So I’d have a tribute album every six months and then mixed in with my country stuff. If I had my way, I would do it.
TL: That sounds good. I miss those days when bands like The Beatles were putting out two albums a year.
JJ: That was the country music standard back in the day. If you want to put two albums out a year, what are you doing? What are you doing with your life?
TL: That’s when a lot of the money was made on recording sales and now, not so much.
JJ: 100 percent.
TL: The reason the music industry sort of dried up is because people let corporations dictate what we were going to listen to and people want to listen to what they like. They don’t want to be force fed something.
JJ: That’s right. I was riding with my brother not too long ago and we were just cruising down in Galveston and had the radio on. It was during the summer and we were checking out the nice scenery down there by the beach. We normally are just listening to either a podcast or he’s got his Pandora. He said, “Let’s listen to the radio and see what’s on there.” We were listening to it, not to talk mess about it. He just kind of just changed it. And he was like, “You know what, Nashville found what they were wanting to do since they kicked Hank Williams out.”
TL: I agree. But look at George Strait. He’s been one of the few people that can walk that line between pop country and classic country. And he does it, so others can do it.
JJ: I agree. He’s definitely one of the ones that can walk the country line and it still be accessible by both sides and he makes it seem effortless. If I had my choice, it’d be a lot of the ace in the whole stuff I love. I like the straight out of the box, the early stuff. The swing stuff and old honkytonk. I love that.
TL: Oh yeah, me too. I just put my radio station together. Twangrila Radio!, and I play a lot of Hank Williams, a lot of Lefty, a lot of Dwight Yoakam, Buck Owens, Merle, the real country troubadours.
JJ: That’s right. They are the real ones. That’s definitely the well I draw water from.
TL: So tell me about your recording process. I saw that you, you recorded this in Dripping Springs, Texas, right?
JJ: Yes. Dripping Springs, a little West of Austin.
TL: Isn’t that where Willie records?
JJ: Not too far from there, he’s out in Spicewood. Mine is Dripping Springs, that’s a little bit more West. But it’s out there in the same type of country out there. It’s beautiful. Recording this was so easy because I already knew the songs worked live, so I wasn’t scared about it. A lot of these songs I’ve been playing live. There was a couple of that I had never played. Seems Like Tears Ago, that was supposed to be the name of the first album.
And then when it was rejected as a title, they didn’t want me to use it. I went and wrote the song for it, just to kind of do it. So that song was new. But most everything else—well Move A Little Closer and stuff had already kinda been—Cry On The Bayou, those were already staples in the live stead. It was easy. Just went out there and had good musicians in there and we kicked it out in the Hill Country and had a good time. Just knocked it out.
TL: Ate some good barbecue, I hope.
JJ: Yeah, we did. We had some real good barbecue actually. Yeah. Yes sir.
TL: I’m always partial, I think Texas barbecue is the best and I’ve had them all over.
JJ: I am not gonna disagree with that. (laughter) Although I’ll love me some Memphis barbecue as well and Nashville’s got great stuff too. There’s a lot of great stuff down here.
TL: Have you been to Peg Leg Porker in Nashville?
JJ: Oh yeah, I make that a point to stop there just about every time I’m rolling through there.
TL: That place is legit.
JJ: It is. We went there for lunch one time. I ate so much I was sick. I had a hard time going back and recording the rest of the day.
TL: I couldn’t eat there at lunch time. If I did I’d have to go back and take a nap for a couple hours.
JJ: I know I made the mistake to just eat it all because I hadn’t eaten, those sessions I go the whole day without eating sometimes. I just forget.
TL: You’re tied up with stuff. You got things going on.
JJ: Yeah. I mean it’s easily, whenever I said I recorded this in three days, well each one of those days we’re about 17 or 18 hours. I think one day we worked about 20 hours.
TL: I don’t doubt it, because you only have the studio for a certain amount of time. Right. So you gotta get everything in—most of the time you don’t have the luxury of spreading it out.
JJ: Yeah, that’s true. And you know, what’s so cool about working with John Evans (producer) and especially this crew too, was that you didn’t get a sense of that. You knew there was an urgency and then we needed to do this. But he has a good way of making things roll without it seeming patient. It doesn’t give me the anxiety of being in a studio and you’ve only got X amount of time.
TL: That’s good. Yeah. He’s a good manager.
JJ: He definitely is. We’re cut from the same cloth. He’s down from around my area, it’s awesome.
TL: So how about the musicians that played on the album?
JJ: I had some great musicians on here and the cool thing is too, there’s a lot of great traditional country players in the Hill Country.
So I played with Geoff Queen the steel player maybe two weeks before we went into record. And he filled in for me one night at the Broken Spoke and I was just completely blown away because I had set another guy that was going to play, and he had a family emergency and hooked me up with Geoff Queen and I’d never played with him before and I’d never heard them. And we played and he just killed it all night. And I called John Evans the next day, “Hey, if we ain’t found a steel player. I know one, and it’s just who I want on my record.” He’s like, “Cool. I’ve already got a guy in mind. What’s his name?” And I told him, I said, “Geoff Queen.” And he said “I’ve already got him.”
TL: How many live shows do you play a year?
JJ: 150 to 200. A lot of it’s in Texas. I don’t really get out of Texas, but I’m hoping to, promoting the new record. I’m gonna make happen, and nothing against New West. I can’t say anything bad about them because they really did kind of get my feet wet and helped me realize how the business works. And there was a lot of changes in the label. Now that I’m working for myself, you can only be as big as you want to be. It just depends on how much you want to work. And I just really want to be up on the road. I want to be playing the honky tonks and get my music out there.
TL: Well, that’s the thing about the real country artists, touring was always in their blood. So I guess that’s like you too. I mean, you gotta be out on the road.
JJ: You do. I love the freedom that comes with it. And I love America and I just want to travel it. I love going in Texas. I find different roads I can take every time. It is a little bit different now. There’s a lot of open road in Texas, a lot of the towns you go into, I hear these romanticized stories of Merle Haggard talking about going through the countryside and Johnny Cash and all this. But now every town you go into, there’s the Denny’s, here’s the McDonald’s, here’s the Walmart. It does kind of take away in some ways, but there’s a lot of small towns and back roads still in Texas, that’s great scenery.
TL: So do you consider yourself more of a recording artist or a live performer or a little bit of both?
JJ: Such a great question. I was trying to dissect this. Personally I don’t get any satisfaction really by listening to my music. Listening back in the playbacks. My mom was joking about this awhile back. I’ve never even seen that I’ve Been Drinking More video until the other day. I was there during the editing. And once I knew it was put together, I was like, “Okay, that’s it,” and I just let it go. Same with my album. I’ve listened to it maybe once or twice to make sure. But it’s been under five or six times. But I get the most satisfaction out of performing it, whether it be in the studio or whether it be live, it’s about the same difference for me. In the studio it can get a little tedious sometimes and I’ll be honest with you, I kind of start fading out. I get glassy eyed. We sit there forever and they’re listening to different takes and I’m like, “Alright, they sound the same to me.”
TL: I’m with you. I don’t think the recording process itself is very glamorous. But you said you have a lot of material you want to put out, so I would say you’re a hybrid.
JJ: That would be fair to say. I enjoy performing it, and like they said in the Ken Burns documentary, “They don’t pay you to play, you’re getting paid travel.” So that’s kind of the way I’d think of it. I go on stage and I love performing. I still love singing, I love writing. We’ll be on the road, I like to add a new song into the set every time we play, just about every show we play, I’ll have a new song. Now it might be something I wrote on the road right there, but it’s something I’ve written within the last six months. And that’s how a lot of these songs on this record end up on there. Songs that I wrote on the road or in between shows.
TL: Do you ever like wake up in the middle of the night and there’s a whole song and then you just write it down?
JJ: Quite a bit. You can ask the family and the band, every hotel we stay in, I’ve got a notepad by my bed and I leave my guitar there in case in the middle of the night I get up. But most of the time now I leave my phone by the bed, so I’ll have a recorder with me. I’ll just turn that on and I’ll hum something and then pass back out and listen to it the next day. Because sometimes the whole act of getting up and waking yourself up when you’re on such a busy schedule, it can eat away at you real quick. I tried to sleep on the road. It’s hard, but I try to.
TL: I know, but I used to travel a lot. Being in at different hotels, sometimes I would wake and not know where I am for about 30 seconds.
JJ: I used to do that quite a bit. I’d freak out. I couldn’t remember what town I was in. It’d be dark in there. Not even know where I’m at I’m like, “Oh my goodness.” It’s taking a minute to kind of realize like, “Oh okay, I’m in such and such.”
TL: I can’t imagine what it’s like for a touring artist such as yourself.
JJ: My girlfriend I had at the time actually was smarter than I was. She said, “You should just start staying at the same hotel they have in every town so you’ll know where you are.” So I try to stay at the Holiday Inn Express.
TL: Oh, I get it. Anything that helps. Because that feeling—for that one minute, it’s just terrifying.
JJ: It really is. It’s funny you tell friends about it and they laugh. Try waking up somewhere and you don’t know where you are.
TL: I feel you. So are there any people that you’re excited to work with?
JJ: Oh my goodness. Yeah. There’s a lot of people are really killing it right now. I’m really happy with a lot of the gals that are doing it too. I mean, they are just—
TL: The women are really spectacular.
JJ: I love it. I just, I absolutely love it.
TL: Me too.
JJ: There’s a bunch of Texas artists, Margo Price, and many others. I’m just glad to see people that everybody’s out there on the road doing their thing.
TL: I think it’s great. You mentioned Margo and then Nikki Lane who used to be one of your label mates.
JJ: I’m all for everybody. I think country music is a one big one big family. Whether or not we talked to each other all the time. Hell, some of us probably don’t even like one another, but we’re all family when it comes down to it. And that’s the important part of country music.
TL: Also, everybody’s on the road traveling. So you really don’t have time to enjoy anyone else’s music that much.
JJ: You know what, that’s so true. And I’ve talked to other people and it used to be different, More community.
TL: Are you involved with the Ameripolitan awards?
JJ: I was nominated two years ago; I haven’t been the last year or so because I didn’t have an album out I’ll tell you what, it’s a great thing. That’s one way to keeping everybody together too.
TL: I went two years. I went last year in Austin, and then I went the first year of Memphis. The two years that I went, it was like a big family reunion. And like you said, everyone’s doing the same thing. Everyone’s happy for each other and it’s one of the few times where artists can actually enjoy seeing other artists and relax, where they don’t have to pack up all their shit after the show and move onto the next town.
Based on listening to your music, I think you’d fit in perfectly because the kind of music you play is exactly what Dale Watson wants to promote.
JJ: I know he’s a big fan and supporter of country.
TL: Can you tell everyone where they can find out about you and where they can buy your stuff?
JJ: Go to the website, www.jasonjamesband.com. That’s got a link to all my socials on there. That’ll let you know where I’m playing at. I’m trying to get caught up here on the social media and really play a part on this record—it’s so important.
TL: Jason, I can’t thank you enough for spending some time with me and really opening up.
JJ: Thank you very much.

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