Jimmy LaFave in the Present Tense

Honoring the local musician's commitment to life

Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

"Don't want to get out of this car," sings Jimmy LaFave at the beginning of "Blue Nightfall." Then he pauses. One … two … three … four seconds. Not a long interval, but you could take up residency in the cavern of possibility this particular silence builds.

The band rolls on, tearing it apart in fully synchronized agony, but your ear wants more of that voice, the very instrument of pain. A great many things beg revelation in this ticking down, least of all an ending. The voice cracks a little, bumps over a phrase, lingering briefly on a key syllable and then, expressing quite patiently, the obvious truth – the one you can't bear to be without:

"It's a blue nightfall. Now I weep."

The band continues but LaFave stops. You can almost hear shards of a broken heart hitting the floor. You'll be forgiven for wondering if you're the only one that's shed anything-but-metaphoric tears. Or for wondering if there's really someone, somewhere who weeps no more, or whether it's just … everybody. Impossible to grasp fully why in such moments a listener feels so much more alive.

Wise, tough, tender, elegant, gritty, he sings Bob Dylan songs like he owns the copyright.

Listening to a genuinely great singer – Smokey Robinson or Joe Strummer, Patty Griffin or Mary J. Blige – is to accept a unique sacrament. It may raise you high or smash you flat, but you'll visit places you've barely imagined as well as those you know so intimately as to call home. Stopovers that confront you with your deepest fears, destinations driving your highest hopes.

Jimmy LaFave is one of those singers. And not only on "Blue Nightfall." All of the veteran Austinite's recordings and even more, his live performances, are extraordinarily rich in these moments.

Once, on my SiriusXM radio show broadcasting live Sunday mornings, I asked him to sing "On a Bus to St. Cloud" as a duet with its writer, Gretchen Peters. They both balked. Then the former sort of shrugged and they did that most beautiful of songs justice. It wasn't perfect. It was extraordinarily human.

"I don't think I really understood that song until I heard him sing it," Peters told me after LaFave covered it on 2001's Texoma.

Austin Skyline

Jimmy LaFave doesn't simply possess a great voice. He taught himself how to use it. How to make it better.

Wise, tough, tender, elegant, gritty, he sings Bob Dylan songs like he owns the copyright. His national debut, 1992's Austin Skyline, included four Dylan covers. Besting the author of "Girl From the North Country" on the Freewheelin' Bob Dylan track isn't a stretch since it's been done before, but usurping him on "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat"?

LaFave captures all the honky-tonk the latter calls for. He keeps the rock rolling and when he starts to sing, you realize that the damn lyric is a really smooth hipster running a verbose come-on with uncommon panache. Originally, I'd heard it as crazy. LaFave made it crazy like a fox.

One night at the Cactus Cafe – I'm not sure what year but the club was packed out in a way that hollers "South by Southwest" – LaFave explained that someone close to him had just lost her sister. The UT listening room remains possibly the finest space I've ever heard music in, as perfectly attuned to the kind of music played in it as it is tiny. You can have your emotions turned upside down in there, and you can also have a ball, like the time a bunch of us played kazoos behind Molly Ivins. On the most memorable evenings, people in chairs and with their backs to the bar or the wall or standing in the doorway are exalted by music.

That night, when Jimmy LaFave sang Dylan's "Not Dark Yet," every heart was not shattered (that wasn't his purpose), but opened. It felt a little like a baby being born. New magic filled the air, something you'd imagined but never taken this far even in fantasy.

It proved one of the few truly perfect performances I've ever experienced. Tears on my cheeks and joy in my heart spring from simple recall of that performance. On that night, at that hour, Jimmy LaFave achieved undeniable greatness.

There are two recorded versions of him singing "Not Dark Yet." He brings so much of himself to the version on 2007's Cimarron Manifesto. The longer he sings it, the deeper it goes. His accompanists, particularly guitarists Andrew Hardin and John Inmon, plus keyboardist Radoslav Lorkovic, crank up that tune. They don't just support, they toss him into the air and catch him clean on the way back down. They love him because he has the courage to step up to this. They get the cost – to Dylan, to LaFave, to whom- or whatever the song's about originally – so they synchronize themselves more completely to live up to it.

The best "Not Dark Yet" is the live take from 2014's Trail 2. In my soul, it's from that night at the Cactus Cafe. This one's gentler, more intimate. He sings it a little more like Dylan, rushing the words here and there, and elsewhere pausing for a breath as if surprised by what's coming next. It's a man counting off heartbeats of his unforgiving yet also absolutely honest interpretation of what it's like to succumb – to hear and see and feel your humanity laid waste.

"My sense of humanity has gone down the drain," wrote Dylan, which is honest because it isn't true – a paradox worth pondering. A couple of lines later, if you listen real, real close, you can hear the voice that's made it through so much tremble. Just a little, just enough. The fragility lays bare palpable courage.

You can't understand it from anybody's mere verbal account, but it's there to be found – in the breathing, in the timing, in the wonder expressed at what the song has to say, and the horror that it's yet incomplete. You get there eventually; that's what Dylan says in the last line, "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there."

Or you don't.

It's that simple. It's that painful. It's a lot like knowing that Jimmy LaFave is dying.

Buffalo Return to the Plains

The first time I met or heard Jimmy LaFave was at the Woody Guthrie tribute conference put on in Cleveland in 1996 to benefit the Woody Guthrie Foundation & Archives and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I saw a lot of old friends and made several new ones at that event. I met him with Greg Johnson from the Blue Door, a folk/rock/singer-songwriter/Jimmy Webb club in LaFave's home state of Oklahoma.

At various Folk Alliance and SXSW events, we regathered, our ranks expanding as more musicians became old friends. It's a great social circle but requires some heavy dues: You either have to know how to perform or have to have something to say about it that has not yet been totally refuted by concrete evidence.

LaFave's singing struck me immediately. So did his songwriting. AllMusic's Thom Jurek, one of the most astute music critics and historians in the country, thinks his third album, Buffalo Return to the Plains, is a virtually perfect folk album, the best of its time. The title song, "Burden to Bear," "Going Home," "Rock & Roll Land" – the more you look into it, the harder that judgment becomes to refute.

LaFave and Eliza Gilkyson at Threadgill’s World Headquarters, April 22 (Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)
He’s kept up the Guthrie tradition of writing about the common man, in praise of justice and equality, against the rape of the land, always siding with the fate of the poor and underprivileged.

In a city crowned by world-class singer-songwriters, Jimmy LaFave nestled near the top from the time he arrived in 1985. The company he keeps on that list is impressive, but more remarkable is that he goes about all of it – composing, recording, performing – with an awareness that he's an Oklahoma-Texas folk musician. Hints of Lynyrd Skynyrd appear on the first couple of albums, including "Rock & Roll Music to the World," but his allegiance is to Woody Guthrie and those who followed him. LaFave played an instrumental role in keeping the focus of the Cleveland Guthrie show, while also proving pivotal in development of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa. He became leader of the troupe that toured the Guthrie show, "Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway" (see "Two Lafaves," below).

He's written insightfully about his native soil, the red dirt region that spawned him and his conception of self. More quietly, he's kept up the Guthrie tradition of writing about the common man, in praise of justice and equality, against the rape of the land, always siding with the fate of the poor and underprivileged. In hindsight, he seems more political than Guthrie, especially in the live arena where most of his audience encounters him.

At the Folk Alliance conference in Kansas City this past February, when I saw him for the first time in over a year, I mentioned he had written the first song about Donald Trump.

"I did?"

"Yeah, it's on Buffalo Return to the Plains. Pretty much every line of it."

We laughed for a moment. His showcase the next night turned out to be one of the most passionate shows I've ever seen, partly because half the audience had heard how sick he was, but mostly because he was playing like it was his last time onstage. At the end, he said wryly, "I wrote a song about Donald Trump 20 years ago and didn't even know it."

Then he sang "Worn Out American Dream."

"I see no refuge for the weary
I see no handouts for the poor
I see no sense of satisfaction
On all the ones who just endure
All the slings and arrows slandered
Against the face of the poor man's dream
Where the rich circle in like vultures
Picking all their pockets clean"

Devastating, especially when he came to "Come on, face your situation. It's just as desperate as it seems."

Burden to Bear

A year earlier, I'd gotten a call from our mutual friend, Val Denn, who's been Jimmy LaFave's agent and de facto manager/agent for most of the time I've known him. She gave me a recap of the conference, which I'd not attended, and then, a little shakily, said, "Jimmy found some kind of growth in his chest."

"How big?" I asked, and was told the size of a pea. It was protruding, not soft and squishy. I told her it was urgent to get a biopsy because the chances were 1,000 to 1 it might be a sarcoma.

I know a lot about sarcomas. In the autumn of 1992, my 20-year-old younger daughter, Kristen Carr, had a routine gynecological checkup. A growth was found in her abdomen and when it was biopsied, it was identified as malignant. Sarcoma is the rarest of rare cancers.

There are approximately 1 million cases of cancer discovered in the U.S. annually. Only 1% of these, 13-15,000, are sarcomas. They're so rare that most surgeons have very incorrect – lethally incorrect – ideas about how to remove them. Biopsy and identification are crucial, because sarcoma pathology is regarded as the most difficult in all of medicine. On top of that, while sarcoma accounts for a small fraction of all cancers, it nevertheless yields about two thirds of all types of cancer. One distinguished researcher told me there will eventually be about 500 types identified.

Sarcoma is cancer of the connective tissues – fat cells, bones, cartilage, fibrous tissue, the lining of organs, blood vessels, lymph nodes, muscle, and many more – meaning they can appear anywhere in the body. There are no symptoms until the tumor becomes large enough to interfere with an organ or system. When someone has a tumor the size of a watermelon, that's often a sarcoma. When you wonder why it wasn't discovered earlier, remember that no symptoms does not mean "a few."

Half of all sarcomas are treated by surgical resection. The other half result in amputations, debilitating additional surgeries, eventually death. If more initial surgeries were done by surgeons with specific sarcoma expertise, the survival rate would likely be notably higher.

Jimmy LaFave had some advantages. His sarcoma was small (sort of), it was identified at an early stage, and it was visible. The surgery appeared successful, but the margins weren't as clear as they needed to be and the tumor recurred almost immediately. Additionally, sarcoma in the trunk of the body is much more lethal than sarcoma elsewhere. You can amputate your arm or leg, but you can't do the same to your bladder or heart.

Jimmy faced major issues immediately and not all of them physical. Even if a medical solution could be found, even if all the family and psychological issues could be surmounted, how would this affect his career or for that matter, given the chest involvement, his ability to sing? Repeated recurrences and then proliferating growth resulted, even with the most promising chemotherapy. No new sarcoma drug has been developed in about 40 years.

I advocated coming to New York where my family works closely, as the Kristen Ann Carr Fund, with a sarcoma team, one of the world's best. After analyzing the options with amazing calm and decisiveness, he told me that if he had to die, then he didn't want to do it in New York. He wanted to be in Austin with the people he loved, on the land that inspired him. He didn't want to be laid waste by chemo if it was only a stopgap. He wanted to write songs, maybe record, do his shows until he couldn't gig anymore.

I had to get off the phone and sit for a while as the truth sank in: Jimmy LaFave was the bravest of all the cancer patients I've known. He wasn't refusing treatment. He wasn't "giving up without a fight." He'd chosen to live, really live.

Depending on the Distance

Sarcoma will eventually cause Jimmy LaFave to die. I wrote this story as much in the present tense as I could, even though I know he is now very, very ill. It's the last chance I have to honor his commitment to life.

He's faced the situation and all the sadness it brings, but his American dream is no wasteland. It's a hero's tale and I hope it inspires generations. He, and his music, deserve that much.

Jimmy LaFave in the Present Tense

Two LaFaves

“Singing is very emotional,” Jimmy LaFave told Dave Marsh in 2005. “You get obsessed with a lot of stuff. There’s a sense of loneliness you have as an artist. That’s why I close my eyes when I sing, because I like to go somewhere and find that place in everybody.” That cover story, “Ribbon on the Highway,” May 6, 2005, bears the roots of this week’s Chronicle main feature. In myriad ways, they’re bookends. Marsh will be a featured speaker at LaFave’s Paramount Theatre tribute. KUTX’s Jody Denberg emcees.

“Jimmy LaFave: Songwriter Rendezvous,” featuring performances by Christine Albert, Sam Baker, Marcia Ball, Ray Bonneville, Slaid Cleaves, Michael Fracasso, Ruthie Foster, John Fullbright, Eliza Gilkyson, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Butch Hancock, Jaimee Harris, Tish Hinojosa, Abra Moore, Ellis Paul, Gretchen Peters, Shinyribs, Kevin Welch, and more, happens at the Paramount Theatre on Thursday, May 18.

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Jimmy LaFave, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Dave Marsh, Kristen Ann Carr Fund, Val Denn, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Andrew Hardin, John Inmon, Radoslav Lorkovic, Molly Ivins

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