J.P. Harris and The Tough Choices at the Main Street Public House

Outfitted in jeans, cowboy boots, and plaid shirts, J.P. Harris and The Tough Choices brought their country-filled goodness to the Main Street Public House in Philmont, NY last Friday. Based out of Vermont — where J.P. says he spends his time contra dancing and chopping wood when not on the road — the band is much, much more than your average country band. Although J.P. Harris and The Tough Choices play a mix of traditional bluegrass and country, there is definitely a lot of rock and blues in the underbelly of the band’s sound. Together, the musicians spit out energetic two-steps and swing numbers as well as slow country ballads, and their sound was as full-bodied as any beer the pub has on tap.

J.P. Harris grins from behind his dark, lengthy beard when he performs, and he clearly enjoys playing with his band. Their music has a raucous fun to it, one that makes you smile uncontrollably. The musicians don’t write set lists, and because of that their show had a sense of spontaneity. Sure, the band members made fun of themselves for sometimes standing around staring at each other while they figured out what to play next, but the musicians are humorously self-deprecating and they were just exaggerating. Not having a set list allowed them to go with whatever mood they were in at that precise moment, to put everything into each song they chose as they chose it. I don’t know which had more twang, the vocals or the instruments, but I do know that both were satisfying to a person who loves authentic country music (such as myself), not the junk Nashville tries to sell to the masses nowadays.

Although the music may be largely twangy, the lyrics are surprisingly poetic. J.P. joked that most of the songs he writes are “95% fact, and 5% bullshit to make them sound good,” which the audience laughed at, but that’s just the self-deprecation again. J.P. Harris was born to be a storyteller, for the compelling nature with which he tells his tales can’t be taught and the stories in the songs are irresistible. The band also played several covers, such as Ricky Nelson’s “Bright Lights and Country Music,” and J.P.’s voice is a perfect balance of sweet and husky, of lonesome and welcoming. As for the music, it ain’t country unless you have pedal steel guitar, and Asa Brosius’ playing rang with clarity and a weepiness that I can’t resist. Ben Jon Roy delivered on drums with a sharp bite to his playing during the faster songs and a smooth sound during the slower ones, Noah Hahn was great on bass and added depth to the band’s music, and Lyon Graulty played guitar. Lyon’s playing fit in great with the country tunes, but during his solos he also drew inspiration from jazz and rock, seamlessly blending everything together.

After a really hard day at work, J.P. Harris and The Tough Choices cheered me and made me feel like it was all okay (and not just because my life is better than the characters in most of the songs). It was chilly outside, but inside we were warm of heart and body due to the music — and the dancing that the music inspired us to do. The people in the audience weren’t the only ones dancing, either… J.P. dances when he plays, which is a lot of fun to watch, and his knee-knockin’ would rival Elvis Presley’s. The whole night was fun, a combination of sitting amongst friends, having fun dancing, and listening to authentic country with a contemporary edge. Although the musicians call themselves J.P. Harris and The Tough Choices, the decision to go see the band was anything but tough and I can’t wait to see them again.

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