- Brad Buchholz Special to the American-Statesman
Jimmy LaFave is running out of breath. The tumors in his chest are growing. He takes morphine for the pain. Yet even now, Jimmy is singing his heart out for us, touching us, teaching us, transcending terminal cancer at every turn, showing us what it is to live and die with dignity and grace through his music.
See him now: Jimmy with his black acoustic guitar, seated center stage, flanked by bandmates who have performed with him for years. As always, his head is bowed. His eyes are closed. He’s dressed in black T-shirt, black jeans. It is a Sunday night in Tulsa, Okla. Closing night of a Woody Guthrie music festival, April 30. The windy weather has forced us indoors, into to a barnlike hall behind the Chimera coffeehouse.
Jimmy’s face is gaunt. The muscle tone in his arms is halfway gone. Yet his mood is warm, welcoming, open. The body is breaking; his voice has lost its range. But Jimmy’s essence is one of courage and quiet power. He praises Woody Guthrie. He cracks jokes at his own expense: “I’m getting so old I can’t set up my own guitar.” The house lights are high, except for a splash of peach stage light on a side wall. Before an audience of family and friends, Jimmy plays songs he’s loved for decades, played for decades — winding his way to Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet.”
“Shadows are fallin’. … I’ve been here all day. It’s too hot to sleep and time is running away.” Jimmy sings haltingly, his voice breaking, his emotions aching as he struggles to stay within the bounds of meter. “It feels like my soul has turned into steel. I can’t … can’t … count the scars that the sun didn’t heal. There ain’t room enough to be anywhere. It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.”
Living inside the song, Jimmy seems to feel the weight of every word, singing to himself and singing to us in the same instant, tapping into a universal understanding of mortality. He’s oh so familiar with every line. Yet he sings with quiet incredulity in moments when Dylan’s song mirrors his own story: “Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb. … Sometimes my burdens, they’re so hard to bear. … It’s not dark yet, but it’s gettin’ there.”
There are a couple of hundred people here, and almost everyone is weeping. It’s a devastating moment. It feels like hell. But more than that: It is honest and authentic and brave. Jimmy refuses to deny death, deny pain. He looks cancer straight in the eye, then sings beyond it. He has taken us to the most vulnerable place in his heart and touched the deepest truth.
It has always been so, with Jimmy LaFave. It is his legacy as an artist.
“I usually sing that a little better,” he says apologetically at the end of the song, as artist and audience try to compose themselves. “But you know the whole thing, I have all this cancer in my lungs … and you have to push that air to hit those notes.” He smiles wearily. “I feel like a baseball pitcher tryin’ to pitch around a weird kink in my elbow or something.”
Jimmy adjusts the tuning on his guitar, considers what song to play next. He senses both he and the crowd need something affirming – which turns out to be a rousing take on “Tulsa Time.” But in that last silent moment before the band breaks into song, a woman in the crowd offers a loving pronouncement. Soft words, which carry easily in a hushed house:
“You will not be forgotten.”
“Well,” says Jimmy LaFave, his head cocked low over his guitar. “I won’t forget you, either.”
Jimmy LaFave is the Great Oak of Austin’s singer-songwriter community. That’s how Griff Luneburg, who ran the Cactus Cafe listening room for decades, likes to put it. Luneburg sees the oak as a symbol of elegance, of stature, of longevity. In his words: “Jimmy is like this oak tree. He has always been all about community. And all these little oaks have sprouted up around him.”
Though raised on the prairies of rural Payne County, Oklahoma — near Stillwater — Jimmy has lived among us in Austin for 31 years now. From the beginning, his most striking feature has been his voice: a husky tenor that’s rugged enough for the roadhouse and sweet enough for starlight. And, oh, can he draw a vowel and make it moan.
Jimmy is the rare singer-songwriter who is also a song stylist, in the tradition of, say, Van Morrison or jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. He doesn’t just “cover” Bob Dylan; he creates Dylan song-paintings, notable for their colors and emotional depth. Jimmy’s self-penned ballads are gorgeous for their simple honesty. Yet he can’t be defined by one song, one album. His essence is in his delivery, his gift for intimacy, and especially the presence he brings to live performance.
“I’ve been thinking about Jimmy’s singing for years, and what makes his singing so unique,” says Nashville singer-songwriter Gretchen Peters, one of his closest friends. “And I think he follows some kind of inner intuitive red-dirt Okie compass. He goes to the heart of emotion in the song rather than making a literal translation of it.
“For Jimmy, singing is more of a Zen meditation than it is a skill. … His phrasing is so unique. I mean, with most singers you can trace the DNA of their style back to singers that influenced them. But with Jimmy, it’s almost as if he was dropped here from another planet.”
Jimmy never scripts a concert, never uses a set list. He doesn’t discuss songs with the band in advance. Rather, he navigates by feel. He listens to his body, taps into the mood of a room. Then he lets the lights drop low and allows a larger spirit to carry him from there. Jimmy doesn’t sing songs; he immerses himself in the music, venturing to the most vulnerable place in his heart and carrying the entire audience with him.
“There is something about music in me: I don’t know where it comes from,” Jimmy told me years ago. “Because I don’t know where it comes from, I try not to touch it (or) figure it out … thinking I might mess it up. Yet I do have this feeling inside of me. Where does it come from? A past life? A lonely place on the road? But I do try to find a place in music that’s isolated — a place that feels like home.”
Offstage, Jimmy projects red-dirt ruggedness. He wore his hair long in high school. He drove trucks across the country instead of going to college. He’s a determined man who has clear feelings about the way the music should be played. He’s blown a fuse in the company of musicians who take themselves too seriously, who try to script things too finely. “I don’t have a short temper,” he once remarked to me. “I just have a quick reaction to bullshit.”
But when the lights go low and it’s time to play, the stage becomes a sacred space, a place of perfect intimacy. The Oklahoma rebel disappears. As lead guitarist John Inmon observes: “The stuff that means the most to him, the stuff closest to his heart: He never speaks of it until the lights go out. It’s almost as if he just keeps everything back until he straps on his guitar. And then it all comes out.”
“I know!” exclaims Austin singer-songwriter Eliza Gilkyson, who has admired Jimmy and his music for 30 years. “It’s an unguarded beeline to your inner workings, and your inner vulnerability. He goes straight to it. You have no defense. A lot of it is his voice itself, which does so much of the heavy lifting. It just blows down any blockades you may put up around your soft spots. So then he makes it safe for you to feel those things.
“Jimmy’s stage persona is actually based on who he really is inside,” she continues. “It’s the vehicle to express his authentic self.” The stage is the safe place, the true place, a refuge from the harsh light and cloaked feelings of the real world. The place we wish we could live, all the time. To Jimmy, a place that feels like home.
Jimmy LaFave first noticed the small lump in his chest in February 2016. Three months later, the lump had grown to the size of an egg. By summer, around the time of his 61st birthday, Jimmy learned it was malignant cancer — sarcoma, a virulent sarcoma, in the connective tissue in his chest. His friend Dave Marsh, the renowned author and journalist, helped connect him with some of the best doctors at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
The prognosis wasn’t good. Jimmy had a year, maybe a year and a half. He sought treatment at MD Anderson in Houston, consented to some radiation in Austin. But very quickly, very quietly, he decided to forgo chemotherapy and discourage extra surgery, favoring quality of life over painful extension of life.
“Jimmy’s very adept at living in the moment, being in the moment,” says Inmon, who has played guitar with Jimmy, on and off, for close to two decades. In that spirit, “Jimmy said, ‘If I’ve only got X number of months left, I’m not going to spend it throwing up, you know.’”
In the months after his diagnosis, Jimmy did not rail against cancer in the company of friends. He did not curse his fate. Instead: He got closer to his music, closer to Jackson, his 15-year-old son. He exhibited an extraordinary sense of calm, a spiritual maturity. When discussing the specifics of cancer, Jimmy often spoke matter-of-factly, or with “gee-whiz” wonder, like a kid talking about a bullfrog or a hummingbird after a day at play in the woods.
For nine months, Jimmy chose not to “go public” with the diagnosis. He didn’t want pity. He didn’t want to disrupt the gentle sanctity of his live shows. He kept quiet in the toughest of times — summer and fall 2016 — when Jimmy and his family began to receive anonymous threats because of his long friendship with Dallas billionaire Kelcy Warren, whose pipeline projects were sparking national protests.
The CEO of Energy Transfer Partners — the company behind the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline and the similarly divisive Trans-Pecos Pipeline in Big Bend country — Warren has been attending LaFave concerts for close to two decades. In 2007, he helped finance LaFave’s Music Road record label and purchased Austin’s Cedar Creek Studio. Ashley Warren, a cousin of Kelcy, has been Jimmy’s closest friend and soulmate throughout the cancer journey.
During ordinary dinner conversation, Jimmy would recount the mean-spirited Facebook posts and phone calls — including threats to burn down his studio — with no rancor, no resentment. Jimmy has always been a gentle soul, a vegetarian since childhood who refuses to wear leather and has written songs respecting Native American values: “Listen to the ghost dance in the valley of gold, where the ones who understand/Respect the buffalo. Baby, let’s watch all the rivers flow.”
“Jimmy was in the middle of some real trauma, knowing the cancer was malignant” when he started taking heat for his connection to Kelcy Warren, says Gilkyson. “Many of us were wanting to say, ‘You people just back the (expletive) off.’ We were so angry, because it all seemed so trivial next to his illness. … Jimmy was sick. But he didn’t want to pull the ‘pity’ thing. He wasn’t going to say, ‘Hey, back off, I’m sick, you know. …’
“So Jimmy became this easy target … (yet) all Jimmy wanted to do was make music and help his friends make music. That’s all that label (Music Road) was. It was not a moneymaking venture. … It would be wrong to say it didn’t hurt him. It hurt him very much. But he came out the other side ‘being himself’ all the way through.”
As his body began to weaken in January 2017, Jimmy maintained a vigorous touring schedule. In the meantime, he started immunotherapy treatment — his last shot, a long shot, he understood at the time — in Austin. Kelcy Warren picked up the tab, since Jimmy couldn’t afford it. On the road, Jimmy’s concerts were poignant, powerful, inspiring. Jimmy had a bounce in his step walking in the door, passing compliments to everyone in sight as he held on to his secret. Then the lights would go down, and he would sing the truth in the songs.
In January, Jimmy covered the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at the Townsend on Congress Avenue: “I was standing in line with Mr. Jimmy; man, he was looking pretty ill.” He saluted superfan Pat Marshall’s 89th birthday, then mused cheerfully about living that long himself. When the concert was over, did he talk about cancer? Nah. Instead, he encouraged the Townsend staff to stock some $3 Shiners at the bar — something more down-to-earth for his fan base, which wouldn’t be so impressed by fancy well drinks.
Jimmy’s performance at the Mucky Duck in Houston on March 4 was a transcendent event, rich with poignant references to love and gratitude, trial and farewell, delivered with both a broad brush and subtle inflections. He started with his own ballad, “The Beauty of You”: “My heart is full of gladness for all the things I love.” He visited vintage blues — “I do not mind; I do not worry; I’m sitting on top of the world” — with triumph and conviction. As his band fought back tears, Jimmy delivered lines of Dylan with the most aching tenderness: “I’ll see you in the sky above, in the tall grass and the ones I love. You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.”
“I can put it all down in one word, and that is ‘awe,’” John Inmon remarked in April, describing the sensation of the spring concerts before Jimmy’s cancer “news” went public. “I’m just in awe how natural his approach is. And not only that: Everybody who cares about Jimmy forgets, just for a little while, that he’s sick. It’s beautiful. The way he chooses the material, the way he expresses himself: This is what an artist does.
“And as usual, Jimmy’s being completely upfront. No pretense, no B.S. Nothing but the straight truth, his truth, in the moment, about his situation. It’s real art, you know? And it’s him.”
Jimmy LaFave has released at least 38 recorded interpretations of Bob Dylan songs over the years. One of the best is a live rendition of “Simple Twist of Fate,” from the “Trail” album. The song starts tenderly, builds to a plaintive roar. Jimmy was 42 when it was recorded at the Cactus Cafe in May 1998. It is a masterpiece of phrasing, of sheer immersion. The singer is cocksure, free, at the peak of his powers.
Jimmy opens the third verse: “Far off a saxophone plays.” In a moment of sheer instinct, he sings the ensuing lyrics in saxophone cadence, beginning with a single-note rat-a-tat repetition that blasts into a full saxy wail as a character within the lyrics passes the “be-ee-ee-EE-at up shade.” Jimmy blows the emotional roof completely off the song — and then he just keeps on going.
Jimmy would never call himself a jazz singer. He likes to poke fun at jazz, at the prototypical “serious” jazz artist. And yet: Jimmy has a soft spot for “My Funny Valentine” and admires Oklahoma native son Chet Baker. He abides by what John Inmon refers to as “a jazz ethic.”
“I could not agree more,” says Gretchen Peters, who wrote “Revival” and “On a Bus to St. Cloud,” two of Jimmy’s finest songs. “He sings like a jazz singer. He plays with the beat. He plays with notes. Yeah. He’s like a horn player, essentially. And he’s riffing all the time. I’m a songwriter … I’m not an improviser … and it’s just astonishing to see somebody do that. Does jazz mean pushing the boundaries? Slurring the beat and the phrase? That’s what Jimmy does. He totally is a jazz man.
“It’s a trip to sing with him. It’s a little bit what fly-casting looks like. You throw it out there. And it goes, maybe, for a long way. And it loops back and comes back to you. You kind of don’t know where it’s going, but you have to trust. And it’s exhilarating.”
In many respects, Jimmy expands the connotation of “jazz ethic.” At a jazz show, a bandleader typically tells his quintet, “Hey, let’s do ‘All of Me,’ and we’ll start it in C.” Jimmy sees no value in such conversation. He just starts playing and lets the band figure it out.
Jimmy’s plaintive rendition of the 1966 pop standard “Walk Away Renee” is one of his most stunning numbers. But there is no written arrangement of it. Like most Jimmy covers, the song was born intuitively, shaped in the moment. A few months ago, Jimmy launched into Pete Townshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door” in performance. Not only did his band not know it was coming, Jimmy had never before mentioned the song to anyone.
“We should all be so lucky to fly by our guts, and go by what we feel in our bodies — to release the music rather than sing it, cerebrally,” says Peters. “It amazes me how he’ll do songs we know well, take them apart from the inside out and totally reinvent them.”
Like the best jazz players, Jimmy knows, too, the value of understatement, of spareness. He’s experienced a lot in recent years: the death of his mother, a major auto accident, a stroke. He understands fragility, and you can feel it in his records and concerts. His heartfelt rendition of Dylan’s “I’ll Remember You,” backed by strings, is the antithesis of “Simple Twist of Fate.” Within cancer, he sings “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” — Dylan’s most tender ballad, a song of longing — in a tempo so slow it feels like a prayer, or water spinning softly, outside of time, in a golden pool.
Jimmy’s own ballads and love songs are built upon the sturdiest, simplest foundations; they’re plainspoken yet deeply nuanced at the same time. “I wish for you a beautiful day,” Jimmy’s mother used to tell him, in farewell, on answering machine messages. After her death, he built an entire song around the idea. “River Road,” a breakup song and a love song in one, set in nature, soars because Jimmy lets go like that “far-off saxophone” and sets his emotions free — but in a soft way that touches compassion and regret.
“I would give my left foot to have written ‘Never Is a Moment,’” says Peters, referring to Jimmy’s most requested ballad. Its allusions are so pure, so elemental, that “Never Is a Moment” is often interpreted as a love song directed to a newborn child.
“It’s the thing every songwriter wants to write, which is the perfect love song,” Peters continues. “It’s so dead simple, and that’s the hardest thing to do. Some of us just aren’t constitutionally able to write that way. The beauty of the song is marriage of a gorgeous melody, that simple chord change, those simple lyrics. That’s the hardest thing to do, and it never fails to bring me to tears.”
Jimmy LaFave loves the spirit and the legacy of Woody Guthrie. He wants us to love it, too, in the same way. That’s why he’s leading friends on an impromptu tour of the two-story museum and archive at the 4-year-old Guthrie Center in downtown Tulsa. It’s April 29. A rainy Saturday afternoon in Oklahoma. Jimmy is in a wheelchair, with a portable oxygen machine humming in his lap. Jackson is here. Ashley Warren is here. Barbara Fox, Jackson’s mother, is here.
“Hey, let’s go look at the lyrics,” says Jimmy, leading his little band of devotees into a circular exhibit space featuring the original handwritten copy of “This Land Is Your Land.” The single sheet of lined notebook paper lies flat, beneath a circle of protective glass. Guthrie’s hand is strong and clean; there are modest corrections. It is signed and dated for posterity: “All you can write is what you see, Woody G … NY NY NY … Feb. 23, 1940.”
“This is like the Magna Carta of rock ’n’ roll,” Jimmy says with admiration, and everyone gathered round laughs approvingly.
Jimmy launches into a story about a day in New York, years ago, when Nora Guthrie — Woody’s daughter — made 30 duplicates of the historic document at a copy center and then walked back to the office, blissfully unaware that she’d left the original on the glass, on the machine, back at the store. “They watch this thing like a hawk, now.”
Jimmy LaFave is received as family at the Guthrie Center. No surprise: As a teenager, he made pilgrimages to Woody’s childhood home in Okemah and sat in ruins of the old house. As an adult, Jimmy created “Ribbon of Highway,” a traveling stage show devoted to Guthrie’s music and legacy that has toured the country since 2003. He researched Woody’s life, matched selected writings with the music, choreographed the entire show and released a version on CD.
Austin singer-songwriters Slaid Cleaves, Kevin Welch, Eliza Gilkyson, Sam Baker, Michael Fracasso and Terri Hendrix have participated in “Ribbon of Highway.” “A lot of us,” says Gilkyson, “came back to Woody through Jimmy.”
“You know, Jimi Hendrix carried Woody lyrics in his wallet,” says Jimmy, continuing the museum tour. He asks the staff to take us into the archives, where we’re shown notebooks, scrapbooks, journals. He marvels at the way Guthrie blends verse and artwork in the books. “Just look at that. …”
Blue eyes flashing with life, Jimmy tells us all about Tulsa’s musical heritage. The Cain Ballroom: “Bob Wills played there! It’s like a mother church of Texas swing! You go in there, and it’s like the Gruene Hall of Oklahoma!” On the streets of downtown, he points to the red-brick Brady Theater: “It’s like the Ryman Auditorium of Tulsa. It’s like going into an old gymnasium. Hank Williams played there! Elvis! It’s like stepping back in time.”
Jimmy reminds us that Bob Dylan’s museum and archive will open soon in Tulsa. “I just regret I won’t be around to see it,” he says softly, “that I won’t live long enough.” Jimmy really doesn’t feel that great. Yet his entire focus is on his family and his friends, their feelings, their experience. He does not complain. The man’s selflessness, his generous good cheer, is just staggering.
“We’re all going to have to walk ‘that Lonesome Valley’ someday. But Jimmy is going ahead and showing us how to do it,” Gilkyson has observed over the past couple of months, moved by Jimmy’s journey through terminal cancer. He remains the same humble man who would stand at the door of the Cactus Cafe and greet his fans before a show, never putting on airs that he was more important than the audience. The larger grace endures.
In the Guthrie Center, Jimmy sits before an exhibit titled “Following in Woody’s footsteps.” Inside the display case: A flier for Bob Dylan’s first concert. A buoyant photo of Pete Seeger. And at the very top: Jimmy LaFave’s first guitar, his childhood acoustic guitar, a gift from his mother, purchased with books of Green Stamps in the late 1960s.
The guitar is functional. Nothing fancy about it. Sandy brown body. “Steel-reinforced neck.” Faded blue circles around the sound hole. The top row of tuning pegs is gone. Most of the fret markers have fallen off. It’s clear this guitar was loved. You can almost see the imprint of Jimmy’s fingers dug into the neck in an A minor chord.
“The first songs I ever played, I learned on this guitar,” he says softly. Right there in the display case, we remind him, next to Dylan and Seeger. “Someday, Jackson will understand the significance of that, even if he doesn’t understand it now.”
Jimmy LaFave is running out of breath. The tumors are growing. He takes morphine for the pain. See him again, singing his heart out for us, onstage in Tulsa. He coughs lightly between songs, between stanzas. His voice is thin. But the music has never felt stronger, more true.
From the stage, Jimmy asks the audience if the singer-songwriter John Fullbright is in the house tonight. Fullbright, just 29, is from Okemah, Woody Guthrie’s hometown. He’s one of those little oaks who owes so much to Jimmy and Woody. “John was here yesterday,” says Jimmy. “Is he here tonight?”
Minutes later, Fullbright takes the stage — not to accompany Jimmy, but to take a request from him. Jimmy wants to hear Fullbright’s “Song for a Child,” a song he’s loved for years, built around the theme of a father’s love for his child. Fullbright plays it on piano. Jimmy bows his head low over the body of his guitar, drapes his left arm over the neck of the guitar.
Fullbright sings: “Look up to the sky before your dreaming, before the moon kisses you goodnight/Gaze up to the stars so brightly gleaming, pick out one to be your guiding light/’Cause when you have a light that shines beside you, you know you will never be alone/I’ll be here awhile so I can guide you when you ask what you might be when you are all full grown.”
Eyes closed, tears streaming, Jimmy nods vigorously in affirmation as Fullbright sings the final refrain: “Little boys grow up to be their daddies, that makes mamas love them even more/And even though the world might treat you badly, you’ll be daddy’s child forevermore.”
In this pure moment, Jimmy LaFave surrenders to the truth in song, the perfect expression of his own love for Jackson. We’re reminded that music, in its highest form, is no simple entertainment. It’s not a commodity. Rather: It’s a gift, an offering, an open exchange between singer and audience. It touches something eternal.
Jimmy LaFave has devoted his life to this calling, this connection. Onstage, he closes his eyes, wraps his hands around the guitar and joins us all, outside of time, in that sacred place of communal understanding.