May 21, 2017 – Jimmy LaFave was born July 12, 1955 in Willis Point, Texas where he was also raised. Music was his destiny from very early on, but he started his journey on drums.
Some years later he moved to Stillwater, Oklahoma and played in the school band but at age 15 LaFave switched to guitar and began writing and singing his own songs in a band called The Night Tribe.
After graduating from high school LaFave played music at night while working during the day. He had a job as the manager of a music club called Up Your Alley and during this period recorded the albums Down Under in 1979 and Broken Line in 1981.
While living in Stillwater, LaFave and a loose collection of songwriters at a local venue known as “the farm” began developing a sound that would later become known as “red dirt music” and became a disciple of the state’s most famous folk musician: Woody Guthrie. (LaFave later became an Advisory Board member and regular performer at the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival).
During that time, LaFave met Bob Childers and produced his first record. Mixing blues, jazz, and country influences he began writing songs inspired by J. J. Cale, Chet Baker, Bob Dylan and Leon Russell. Sometime after Childers’ death in 2008, a one-day singer-songwriter festival called Bob Childers’ Gypsy Café became an annual event in Stillwater. The festival is a fundraiser for the non-profit Red Dirt Relief Fund. On April 26, 2017, during the festival, LaFave was the inaugural recipient of the Restless Spirit Award – an award whose name comes from a Childers’ song.
After traveling and short term stays in several other cities in the 1980s, LaFave relocated to Austin, Texas.
In 1992 La Fave signed with Colorado-based Bohemia Beat Records and recorded his debut album Austin Skyline which included four Bob Dylan songs and consisted of live performances and recordings from Marcia Ball’s home studio. The debut album was followed by Highway Trance in 1994 and Buffalo Return to the Plains in 1995.
Between 1997 and 2001, LaFave released three more albums on the label including the 1999 double-CD Trail, which was a 15-year retrospective of live performances and studio outtakes. In December 1995, LaFave won the Songwriter of the Year Award at the Kerrville Folk Festival and in March 1996, received the same honor at the Austin Music Awards sponsored by The Austin Chronicle.
LaFave gained nationwide exposure in 1996 through his appearance on the PBS music show Austin City Limits when he was paired with Lisa Loeb for an evening of “acoustic ballads and electrified folk-rock numbers”. In 1996, LaFave made an appearance at a tribute to Woody Guthrie held at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the invitation of Guthrie’s daughter.
In 1998, LaFave began attending the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festivals held in Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma and in 2007 became a member of the Woody Guthrie Coalition that organizes the festival. Woody Guthrie was his musical hero as he paid homage to him in the song”Woody Guthrie” on the Texoma album. Album reviewers described it as “reminiscent of the Dust Bowl heritage of Woody Guthrie, the early rock of Chuck Berry, the quiet folk reflections of Bob Dylan, and the rock anthems of Bruce Springsteen” and “honest, thoughtful and sincere” music. LaFave’s “red dirt music” sound has been described as a mix of rock, folk, rockabilly, and country, grounded in the landscape of Texas and Oklahoma.
In 2003, LaFave produced a Woody Guthrie tribute show called Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway. The ensemble show toured around the country and included a rotating cast of singer-songwriters individually performing Guthrie’s songs. Interspersed between songs were Guthrie’s philosophical writings read by a narrator. In addition to LaFave, members of the rotating cast included Ellis Paul, Slaid Cleaves, Eliza Gilkyson, Joel Rafael, husband-wife duo Sarah Lee Guthrie (Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter) and Johnny Irion, Michael Fracasso, and The Burns Sisters. The Godfather of Red Dirt Music, Bob Childers, also known as “the Dylan of the Dust,” served as narrator.
When word spread about the tour, performers began contacting LaFave, whose only prerequisite was to have an inspirational connection to Guthrie. Each artist chose the Guthrie songs that he or she would perform as part of the tribute. One of the songs Gilkyson chose was “Pastures of Plenty”, while Cleaves chose “This Morning I Am Born Again” – a song he wrote using Guthrie’s lyrics. One of the songs Paul chose was a song he wrote using Guthrie’s lyrics – “God’s Promise”.
LaFave said, “It works because all the performers are Guthrie enthusiasts in some form”. The Ribbon of Highway tour kicked-off on February 5, 2003 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. The abbreviated show was a featured segment of “Nashville Sings Woody,” yet another tribute concert to commemorate the music of Woody Guthrie held during the Folk Alliance Conference. The cast of “Nashville Sings Woody,” a benefit for the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives, also included Arlo Guthrie, Marty Stuart, Nanci Griffith, Guy Clark, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Janis Ian, and others. Also in 2007 at Nora Guthrie’s invitation, LaFave spoke and performed at Woody Guthrie’s induction into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame.
LaFave left Bohemia Beat for Red House Records and released his 2005 album Blue Nightfall which one reviewer called his “best work yet” and “a great introduction to an important artist”. LaFave’s second release for Red House Records was the 2007 album Cimarron Manifesto which went to No. 1 on the Americana Music Association chart. In his review of LaFave’s Cimarron Manifesto (2007) for the FolkWax E-Zine, Arthur Wood calls LaFave “one of the finest Dylan interpreters ever.
LaFave’s 14th release, Depending On The Distance, was released on September 18, 2012. Backing musicians include Austin’s Eliza Gilkyson and John Inmon. The 13-track release includes three Dylan covers, including a version of “Red River Shore” that runs more than nine minutes. In her review for The Oklahoman, Brandy McDonnell said: “Jimmy LaFave’s first studio album in five years, lives up to the intriguing promise of its title, finding the Oklahoma-Texas troubadour in a contemplative mood whether he is crooning his new original songs, covering an ’80s pop smash or reinterpreting anthems penned by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.“
In 2015, LaFave released The Night Tribe. A review of the new release in No Depression stated that LaFave “delivers 11 exquisitely crafted self-penned songs and re-interprets two Americana masterpieces; barely making them recognizable as they become Jimmy LaFave songs.”
In 2007, LaFave joined forces with recording engineer Fred Remmert and Dallas businessman Kelcy Warren to create Music Road Records, located in Austin, Texas. Music Road Records owns and operates two Texas-based recording facilities: Cedar Creek Recording in Austin and Cherokee Creek Recording in the Texas Hill Country. Favorites 1992-2001, a retrospective from LaFave’s years on the Bohemia Beat label, was released by Music Road Records in 2010.
In April 2014, Music Road records released Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne. The 2-disc tribute album was produced by LaFave and was two years in the making, after LaFave garnered Browne’s approval during the 2012 Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration. The album features Bruce Springsteen, Lyle Lovett, Bonnie Raitt, Ben Harper, Keb Mo’, Shawn Colvin, Lucinda Williams, and others.
In an article published in The Austin Chronicle in April 2017, LaFave announced publicly that he was battling spindle cell sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that had been diagnosed one year earlier. After various treatments failed, doctors advised LaFave that there was nothing else the medical profession could provide. During the course of his illness leading up to this announcement, LaFave continued to perform – not cancelling even one show. In addition, he has continued to record new songs that he hopes will add to his legacy.
At the time of the public announcement, The Austin Statesman announced that a concert to honor LaFave would be held at the Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas on May 18, 2017. LaFave helped in the selection of friends and musicians who would perform that night. LaFave also selected charities that would benefit from a crowdfunding effort set up in his honor.
Within ten days of being created, the crowdfunding effort “Celebrating Jimmy LaFave” via GoFundMe had received more than $38,000 in donations.
Jimmy LaFave died of cancer at his home in Austin, Texas, on May 21, 2017 at the age of 61. His death came just three days after making an appearance at the Paramount Theater tribute show in Austin. According to the The Austin Statesman: “A sold-out audience heard artists ranging from Austin artists including Eliza Gilkyson, Slaid Cleaves and Ruthie Foster, plus some from out-of-state including Nashville’s Gretchen Peters, Boston’s Ellis Paul and Woody Guthrie’s granddaughter Sarah Lee Guthrie, primarily playing songs that LaFave wrote or were part of his repertoire.”
Within 24 hours, LaFave’s death was reported in numerous newspapers throughout Texas and Oklahoma, in The New York Times and as far away as England, where he often performed.
He has recorded 15 albums and his 2007 release, Cimarron Manifesto, reached the No. 1 mark on the Americana Music Association album chart. In 2012, LaFave released the studio album Depending On The Distance.
The Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame announced that LaFave would be one of several musicians inducted into the Hall of Fame at a ceremony being held on June 14, 2017.