If I had to pick just one song from the hundreds that Austin musician Jaimee Harris has written to help you understand where she’s coming from, it would be “Catch It Now.”
On “Red Rescue,” her completed but not yet released debut album — more about that later — Harris delivers the tune solo, accompanied only by her acoustic guitar. As its verses unspool, her outlook changes. She’s down and out, then full of joy and gratitude. She’s in love, yet she knows she might not survive it. She doubts herself, but she emerges with resolute determination.
“I’ll try to never hide my soul away from anyone ever again,” Harris promises, before concluding in the chorus: “I ain’t waiting for it, gonna go catch it now. I’ve been waiting for so long.”
“Catch It Now” is a deeply personal song, but it also feels like a metaphor for her career aspirations. A songwriter since her early teens, Harris, 28, can be found on YouTube performing original material alongside her father, Waco lawyer Chris Harris, in the duo Better Off Dad. Some of her first songs still hold up more than a decade later.
In a text message prefaced with the disclaimer “Boring Proud Dad Story,” Chris Harris recounted how Better Off Dad got started. “The reason we started playing as a duo when she was 12 is because (a) she asked; and (b) she was literally the best singer I’d worked with live … at 12.”
The early start made a big difference. A popular if unscientific precept is that you get really, really good at something once you’ve spent at least 10,000 hours doing it. Harris likely blew past that benchmark in her early 20s.
After a brief college stint at Colorado State in Fort Collins, Harris returned to Waco and then moved to Austin in November 2009, lured by the city’s rich talent pool of songwriters. She was in town for a visit when a friend made a compelling case for her to relocate.
“He spent two hours preaching to me on why I should move to Austin,” she recalls. “He was like, ‘All your heroes are here.’ This was the closing argument: ‘There’s a club down the street where James McMurtry plays twice a week for less than 10 dollars.’ I moved here five days later.”
AT THE TIME, Harris recently had begun singing backup vocals with David Ramirez, who was then in the early stages of a career that has blossomed with the release of two widely acclaimed albums since 2015. It took a while for Harris to get her own music going in Austin, partly because she was working two jobs just to cover the city’s high cost of living.
“And I hadn’t really found my tribe,” she adds. “I was singing background vocals with some people, but I was still looking for that place in Austin where the Patty Griffin fans and the Kelly Willis fans were hanging out. And then I found Strange Brew.”
The South Austin coffeehouse venue, which closed in early 2017, fostered a thriving music community for several years, centered on songwriters. Harris found it at what turned to be a crucial time, when she was struggling with substance abuse issues in late 2013.
“I loved their gospel brunch so much,” she says of the Sunday morning Purgatory Players gig that’s since been relocated to El Mercado Backstage. “I would stay with this friend of mine and do cocaine all night so that I could stay up and go to the gospel brunch.”
Harris is up front in admitting that a DWI arrest in February 2014 temporarily derailed her life and career. She spent several days in jail; her parents didn’t bail her out because they “were not enabling me at that time, for a reason,” Harris says. Her father’s legal work has included plenty of counseling for drug issues; in 2015, he and his law partner Will Hutson went viral on YouTube with “Don’t Eat Your Weed,” a catchy little acoustic tune of advice.
Harris vowed to go sober when she got out of jail. Fellow singer-songwriter Betty Soo offered an opening slot on an upcoming bill to help give her a goal. “The show was maybe two or three months later,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘I can stay sober long enough to do that gig at least.’ And I did.” She’s stuck with it ever since.
IT WAS AT STRANGE BREW that I first encountered Harris in December 2014. She was taking part in a Tom Petty/Tom Waits tribute night alongside Suzanna Choffel, Anthony da Costa, Charlie Faye, Michael Fracasso and others. Two months later, I saw her singing backup vocals with teenage rocker William Harries Graham’s band at the Continental Club.
In early 2015, I spoke with Harris about her love of Fleetwood Mac for a preview of the band’s Erwin Center concert. A few weeks later, Harris turned 25 on the night she spearheaded Strange Brew’s in-sequence re-creation of the landmark 1995 “Wrecking Ball” album by Emmylou Harris, with whom Jaimee shares a birthday as well as a surname.
At first, Jaimee Harris was just one of a dozen names on a lineup list at these Strange Brew tribute nights. Then I began to pick up on her frequent backup singer gigs with a handful of different local acts. Gradually it became clear that she was an integral part of a broad but tightly knit community of Austin singer-songwriters that included Bonnie Whitmore, Betty Soo, Graham Weber, Seela (who became her bandmate) and Jane Ellen Bryant (who became her roommate).
By the time Harris completed a half-year run of weekly Thursday night shows at One-2-One Bar in mid-2017, I’d witnessed enough to understand just how good she was. Everything seems lined up for Harris to go places. She’s great singer who writes memorable, meaningful songs. She has a strong work ethic, holding down a steady day job in a medical office to support her musical ambitions. And she’s assembled an excellent band, with backing singer Seela’s husband Jon Greene on drums, bassist Kris Nelson, keyboardist Derek Morris, and her Waco childhood pal Brian Patterson adding crucial atmospheric touches on guitar.
The Live Music Capital is, of course, rife with talented artists working just under the radar, looking to break out. But in the five years I’ve been dong this job, Jaimee Harris stands out as someone really special.
DON’T JUST TAKE my word for it; let’s hear from renowned Texas outlaw guru Ray Wylie Hubbard. Writing and singing a verse on Jeff Plankenhorn’s recent song “Tooth and Nail,” Hubbard begins by recalling when a young Hayes Carll tended bar at a storied Galveston cafe before he became a star. And then this: “It’s a young girl named Jaimee, who’s a little high-strung/ She’s got a tattoo on her right arm of the poet who wrote ‘Lungs.’”
That tattoo of Townes Van Zandt (“Lungs” being one of his best songs) is indeed a distinctive characteristic, as much a part of Harris’ identity as the red glasses she wears most everywhere she goes. Like most Texas songwriters who are serious about their craft, she holds Van Zandt in high esteem. When the Cactus Cafe holds its annual Townes birthday tribute every March, Harris is pretty much a lock to be on the bill.
But it was another troubadour who became central to her life in recent years. After her friend Noelle Hampton got Harris a gig adding backup vocals to Jimmy LaFave’s 2015 album “The Night Tribe,” she became friends with LaFave, one of Austin’s best-known folk performers since moving here from Oklahoma in the 1980s.
“He asked me to do some more studio work out at Cedar Creek (where LaFave recorded), and we stayed in touch,” Harris recalls. “Jimmy and I were both night owls, and we’d sometimes meet up at the diner and have conversations about all sorts of stuff. “
LaFave helped expand her knowledge of American icon Woody Guthrie’s songs, and he went to see her play, taking an interest in her budding career. When LaFave was diagnosed with cancer in mid-2016, Harris was among his few close friends who became aware early on that it was terminal.
When LaFave’s condition finally became public in April 2017, Harris joined LaFave onstage at Threadgill’s to sing “Restless Spirits,” a Bob Childers song that was a longtime staple of LaFave’s repertoire. A month later, she kicked off an emotional tribute night at the Paramount Theatre by playing that same song, with Jimmy watching from the wings just three days before he died.
Next month, LaFave’s final recordings will be released posthumously on the album “Peace Town.” The title song consists of lyrics from Woody Guthrie’s archives that LaFave set to music. Harris sings on the tune.
LAFAVE RETURNED THE FAVOR by singing on “Red Rescue,” the title track to Harris’ long-awaited debut album. His presence echoes elsewhere on the record: It’s hard to hear the tracks “Forever” and “Where Are You Now” without thinking of LaFave and bassist George Reiff, who died of cancer on the same day as LaFave and was a good friend of the album’s producer, Craig Ross (known for his work with Patty Griffin).
Originally set for release this month, “Red Rescue” is now on hold, but for an auspicious reason: Harris has been negotiating with a label in Nashville for a possible wider release. Still, it means a longer wait for an artist who’s well past ready to have a record in her name.
“It’s frustrating to not be able to promote gigs because you can’t give the radio anything,” she acknowledges. “But we’ve worked so hard on this record, I really don’t want to rush this part.
“I’m in this for the long run, so I’m not in a hurry. It’s more important to me to build it, and that has been the benefit of waiting. I can wait till the right person comes to help me.”
In the meantime, she has a busy summer ahead. Having just played the Kerrville Folk Festival, Harris has several local gigs in mid-June. She’ll play an Austin360 Artist of the Month Facebook Live session at noon on June 11, followed by Sun Radio’s “Texas Radio Live” series at Guero’s on June 13 at 6 p.m. and a John Prine tribute at Threadgill’s later that evening. It all leads up to a big show on June 14 at Antone’s, her first time playing the hallowed local venue.
Tours of Florida, the Northeast and California also are on her plate for this summer. In the meantime, her debut record is done; those who contributed to a crowdfunding campaign received the music earlier this year. The rest of the world will find out soon enough. It’s just a matter of time.
“I’ve been waiting for so long,” Harris sings. “I’m gonna go catch it now.”
AUSTIN360 ARTIST OF THE MONTH: Jaimee Harris
Recordings: “Red Rescue,” release date TBD.
Upcoming shows: June 13 on Sun Radio’s “Texas Radio Live” at Guero’s, 1412 S. Congress Ave. (6 p.m., $10 suggested donation); June 14 at Antone’s, 305 E. Fifth St., with Western Youth and Alice Spencer (9 p.m., $10-$12).
Austin360 Facebook Live session: Noon June 11.