Throughout his life and career, Jimmy LaFave has made his way on both sides of the Red River.
So it's appropriate that one of the highlights of the singer-songwriter's first album of new material in five years is a poignant cover of Bob Dylan's epic ballad “Red River Shore,” even if the waterway dividing Oklahoma and Texas might not be the one Bob the Bard had in mind.
“The song ‘Red River Valley,' the famous cowboy song, is actually about the Red River that runs through Minnesota. And since Dylan's from Minnesota, I have a feeling he was thinking of his homeland. ... Then again, you never know. He's been to Texas and Oklahoma, too. But for me, definitely it brought up memories of the Oklahoma-Texas connection and the Red River that I've crossed so many times,” LaFave said in a recent phone interview from the Americana Music Festival & Conference in Nashville, Tenn.
“The lyrics are so cool to that song, too, if you really start listening to what he's singing about, the nine minutes fly by pretty quick.”
Time also flies when you're starting your own record label and preserving the legacy of Oklahoma music icon Woody Guthrie, acclaimed red dirt musician LaFave has discovered. It took LaFave, 57, two years to record his new album, “Depending on the Distance,” his first collection of new material on Music Road Records, the label he co-founded in Austin, Texas, in 2008.
Red River connection
Born in Wills Point, Texas, about 30 miles east of Dallas, the future roots music champion had a rhythm going behind a Sears & Roebuck drum kit by the time he was in junior high. When he was a teenager, his family moved north of the Red River to Stillwater, where he finished high school and began to dig even deeper musical roots.
Although he has made his home in the musical hotbed of Austin for a quarter-century, LaFave remains closely associated with Oklahoma's fertile red dirt scene, which he pioneered in Stillwater with the likes of the Red Dirt Rangers and the late Bob Childers.
He tips his hat to his Sooner State upbringing with the boogie-woogie track “Red Dirt Night,” in which he names “about every town in Oklahoma I can think of that'll fit into the rhythm of the song.”
“It was kind of fun because a few of 'em I kind of researched just 'cause I got curious about what the heck this means ... so it became like a little mini history lesson for me in Oklahoma town names.”
But most of the album finds the folk bard in a contemplative mood, as reflected in the title.
“Depending on the distance can determine a lot of how you see a situation. ... You know, you could be in the middle of a divorce right now and you hate the person that's your ex. But 10 years down the road, depending on the distance, you may look back and laugh about it or actually realize you were the one that was mainly at fault,” he said.
Originals and covers
LaFave penned eight of the tracks on “Depending on the Distance,” including the pensive ballad “A Place I Have Left Behind,” the plain-spoken social commentary “It Just Is Not Right” and the folksy lover's plea “Talk to Me.”
The gospel-inspired nostalgia anthem “Bring Back the Trains” features buoyant backing vocals from Austin jazz/soul chanteuse Tameca Jones.
Folk songbird Eliza Gilkyson, another Austinite, prettily backs LaFave on his rendition of Bruce Springsteen's “Land of Hope and Dreams.” Along with “Red River Shore,” the album also features covers of two more Dylan songs, “I'll Remember You” and “Tomorrow Is a Long Time.”
He looked across the Red River for help with the album's most surprising cover, a rootsy remake of John Waite's 1984 chart-topper “Missing You.” The ode to lost love has been covered by artists as divergent as Alison Krauss and Tina Turner, but LaFave said his distaste for Brooks & Dunn's countrified 1999 version led him to record his soulful rendition, featuring Oklahoma guitarist Travis Linville.
“I thought, ‘That song just has to have some better reading than this,'” LaFave said. “I thought to bring a little more Okie vibe to the record, I'd get Travis to play. ... We did our best to try to rescue it from how far it'd fallen.
“It's an interesting study in the life of the song.”