Jimmy LaFave left Oklahoma as a young man — just like one of his biggest heroes, Woody Guthrie — then lived an entire life continually inspired by the red dirt he left behind, haunted by his homestate histories, and consistently pressed into service as an ambassador for its culture.
He didn’t seem to mind. “There’s something about that part of the earth that sticks with you,” he told the Tulsa World nearly 15 years ago. “I have to go back there from time to time to soak up some energy and inspiration. I plan to end up back there myself one day.”
I don’t know if he’s ultimately ending up back in Oklahoma, but I’d always been convinced he never actually left.
The hard details of LaFave’s biography — as seen in this week’s obituaries after he passed away Sunday following a rapid duel with cancer — chronicle an adulthood back in Texas with survivors left behind in Austin, but LaFave ultimately died as he lived: as a proud expatriate Okie, a rascally but tender-hearted minstrel boy ever howling about steamy Stillwater nights and endless Tornado Alley torrents, a Sooner gone too soon.
This dichotomy is hardly worth noting. But that damned OU-Texas football rivalry bleeds into other areas of culture, including regional musics. My own arts reporting and music criticism from Tulsa throughout the ’90s and into the aughts unfortunately bought into this false dualism and was, at times, more T-town boosterism than Wilde-man critic-as-artist. The Red Dirt music of north-central Oklahoma, according to the hardening conventional wisdom, was utterly unique and thus not only different than but — because of the implied contest — counter to the aw-shucks alt-country down in Austin. The two camps, of course, had far more in common than they cared to admit. The line between, say, Jason Boland and Pat Green isn’t that stark.
LaFave, though, even having been born in Texas, remained a figurehead for Oklahoma’s Red Dirt sound. Frankly, at least to me, he never really fit in Austin. The Texas alternative to country music was rooted in an ideological stance against Nashville, an agenda pursued offhandedly by scraggly guys with a definite counterculture aroma about them. Even in the SXSW-era capitalist taming of that original outlaw outlook, Austin music has been often referential of that Austin-Nashville binary, usually as the former was retreading the latter. Red Dirt, for many reasons, has been less concerned with either side, and I never had the sense that LaFave could give two hoots. That gravel pit of a voice had enough drawl to earn him bookings on Sixth Street, but his lyrical sentiments — and especially the distant, starry look in his eye when he delivered them — transmitted nothing that was remotely cowboy or even cowboy-wannabe. I would have cracked up if I ever saw him in boots, and I have no memory of him without that beret. Jimmy basically was a beatnik who never made it to the big city.
If there’s anything identifiably Okie that LaFave couldn’t shake south of the Red River, it’s a grounded kind of mysticism inherent to much of Oklahoma culture. Red Dirt music is well-peopled by wide-eyed sorts, gents who are far more sage than sagebrush — Randy Crouch, the late Bob Childers, Jared Tyler, John Fullbright, Cody Canada to a degree, J.J. Cale in his frequently parallel universe. LaFave’s music was rarely deep, by any means, but neither was it superficial. Not mindless, but very mindful. LaFave often wrote around what Tom Wolfe would describe the Unspoken Thing. LaFave’s lyrical reality was a “shadow world” (“The Night Tribe”) where people were “shadow dancing” (“When It Starts to Rain”) and ultimately “lost in the shadows” (“Dark Dancing Eyes”). Regularly recurring subjects are earthy and elemental: the moon, the rain, lightning, midnight. Again like Woody, he expressed a firm humanism, always tipping the balance toward the worldly (“two parts religion three parts sin” in “Desperate Men Do Desperate Things”) and claiming some distance from direct religious participation (“Do you ever talk with the angels? / Put a word in for me” in “Talk to an Angel”). LaFave’s salvation came through living as humanly and humanely as possible — giving love but also accepting it, listening to wisdom but sometimes baying like a beast, all of which is laid out in my favorite LaFave song, “Minstrel Boy Howling at the Moon.”
This had to cock a few eyebrows, at least when LaFave first fell among the Austinites. Back in Payne County, though, he always made perfect sense. Red Dirt bands still hail LaFave as the genre’s undisputed fountainhead. For a long time, Red Dirt was chiefly a theoretical badge, an embryonic identity hinted at in occasional interviews. Then LaFave wrote “Red Dirt Roads at Night.” Geography and culture and ideology crystallized into a rollicking spiritual manifesto. A simple grinding blues-rock base propels what would be LaFave’s main topical themes throughout his career: that a prayer for rain is about quenching more than physical thirst; that nighttime is the right time; that you can never go home again but, by gum, you can sure as hell keep trying. “Red Dirt Roads” are not city roads, but LaFave isn’t against the town. He’s just happy to have the freedom to leave it. (Texas songs go down to the bar; Red Dirt songs tend to jump in the car.) The party, after all, is not at the club, but at the storied “farm” he name-checks, a code communicating to a very specific and historically situated audience. More importantly, though, “Red Dirt Roads” did much to enshrine the region’s ochre clay as not merely topographic but deeply symbolic. My former colleague John Wooley called this song “an acknowledged beacon for the Red Dirt movement.” John Cooper of the Red Dirt Rangers was direct with me about it: “That’s where we got the name for our band.”
LaFave lives on in all Red Dirt music, and his own catalog will never shake the dust. “I have a hard time escaping,” he told me years ago. “I’ve been in Austin all these years, but I’ve always longed to get back to Oklahoma. There’s something about it, about that state. It’s definitely in my music. It’s got Okie stuff in it. I mean, when I get stumped for inspiration, I go driving around Osage or Payne counties and I always end up with a few songs. It just opens me up. Some people like to fly to Hawaii for inspiration and lie around on a beach. I’d rather hang around Stillwater with my friends and watch storm clouds grow on the horizon.”
It’ll be hard to do any of those things again without thinking of Jimmy and hearing his tunes.
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I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.