I met Jimmy LaFave in January 1986, shortly after we had both moved to Austin. We were playing at the open stage at Chameleons. He sang Minstrel Boy, the beautiful Only One Angel, and either Thru the Neon Night or Deep South 61 Delta Highway Blues. I’m not sure I’ve ever been quite so blown away, especially at an open stage. The great voice, the great songwriting, that great mysterious something. My wife Laura and I were among a small handful of folks who showed up for his first real gig in Austin, also at Chameleon’s. He was great, with his buddy Gene Williams playing lead guitar. He had a lot more than four good songs, but even then he sprinkled in songs by Dylan, his friend Bob Childers, and others. He has a real gift for getting inside of the songs that he covers and inhabits them so completely that you’d swear he wrote them himself, even when you know he didn’t.
Shortly afterwards, Chameleon’s closed at the location off Sixth Street and Peg Miller and Glynda Cox pulled together the money to open Chicago House there. I’ve heard that at least part of the reason they opened the club was to provide Jimmy a place to play. Whether that’s true or not, Chicago House became the hub of the acoustic singer-songwriter scene in Austin in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
We shared a few stages at songwriter showcases in those early days and Laura and I would try to get to his gigs whenever we could at places like The Hole in the Wall, Chicago House, Waterloo Ice House, Zilker Hillside and other places. We made our first trip to the Kerrville Folk Festival the first year (only year?) that Jimmy was selected to perform for the New Folk Competition. At least one of the times that I was selected he was there playing the main stage.
We both hosted open stages for a time at Chicago House in the late 80’s, mine on Mondays and his on Thursday. Betty Elders hosted a stage on Wednesdays. I’m not sure I’d say we were friends, but I wouldn’t say we weren’t. We weren’t buddies and we didn’t hang out, but then I was married and had an 8-5 job, so I didn’t do a lot of hanging out.
Still, we crossed paths every now and then, even a few times just walking on the Town Lake trail. And we saw his band playing for a huge crowd one time at Auditorium Shores on Town Lake with his band. Larry Wilson was his lead guitar player then and I still remember Larry and the band channeling Stevie Ray and Hendrix on a mesmerizing version of Little Wing. Even with the guitar pyrotechnics, it was Jimmy’s voice that shined the brightest. Stevie and Jimi were no doubt smiling down on him that night and probably a little envious of those vocal chords.
Laura and I left Austin in 1996 and only get back every couple of years, sometimes more and sometimes less and usually just for long weekends. We moved to the DC area and managed to see Jimmy play at the Kennedy Center Millenium Stage once and also at the Birchmere, as part of a Texas Songwriter’s Night with Tish Hinajosa, Teri Hendrix and Ray Wylie Hubbard. When he played the Birchmere, I sent a note backstage to say hello. He called the next day and left a message. He apologized for not being able to connect and said he was already miles away, “heading for another joint.”
Hearing him twice in 20 years hasn’t really been enough. Every time we’ve gone back to Austin, we’ve checked to see if he was playing anywhere. We’ve had a few near misses, but there was always hope that maybe the stars would align the next time. And now it looks very doubtful that next time will ever come, but miracles happen.
I have kept up with him through his records, which I have purchased and listened to whenever I need an Austin fix. But there has always been something about hearing him play live, with his eyes half closed and that beautiful rasp in his voice.
To understand why Jimmy is important, you have to look at the songs. For my money, Only One Angel is Jimmy’s best song. Perhaps I’m a little biased in favor of his old songs. It’s one of the first songs I ever heard him play and probably the song I’ve heard him sing the most. Of course, it’s a beautiful love song. We could leave it at that and move on. But it is also about music and the interconnectedness of all things.
The first verse, which is repeated at the end, along with the chorus are the meat of the love song. He is driving late at night and it is raining. But at the mere mention or thought of her name, he feels that “he’d be safe and warm and dry.” And if he sings her “special song,” he knows that “deep inside that spirit baby nothing could go wrong.” It’s like casting a spell or praying to his guardian angel and she’s his “only one angel.”
In the second verse, he’s spent a day admiring (awestruck might be a more appropriate term) the beauties of the desert west. He “could run through a desert wind and the day would leave [him] breathless.” He’s not breathless from the run, but rather from “searching for words again” to describe to his love what he’s seeing, hearing and feeling. As he puts it in one of the most remarkable phrases I can recall in a song: “In hopes that you might hear the sound/in streams of magic colors that are painted across the ground.” Think about that for a moment. Not just the “streams of magic color” which perfectly evokes the Painted Desert, or the Mesas and Buttes at sunset, or the ripples and curves of the Grand Canyon; but that his lover can “hear the sound” of it, the sound of the Earth or the Music of the Spheres, the deep vibration of the Universe itself. He is hearing the “sound” of what he is seeing with his eyes. How can one poor mortal find the right words for all that?
The chorus brings us back to the love song. He “always take[s] you with me like a charm”; his talisman “to keep him in the good light, safe from harm.” The last two lines are more workmanlike; she chases the “gray clouds far away” and “keeps [his] feet from turning into clay.”
In the third verse, he turns to deeper speculation. He starts, “if I could send out a melody,” perhaps the melody of this song, “do you suppose that if the word got out the circle would reach to me.” These are presumably the words that he was searching for in verse two, but what about this circle? It’s a circle around the entire globe, and somewhere he wonders, would it “cross that line, in some distant land, where the silver strings that ring my friend are played by ancient hands.” In other words, would his words be worthy of connecting across time and space with ancient songwriters and storytellers. Is he part of that great tradition and community? He leaves the question hanging, but ends by saying “if you want to know what pulls me through, I have only one angel and that one angel is you.” If he has her, perhaps he doesn’t need to know the answer to the question. He repeats the first verse, to bring the love song and the midnight rain back front and center, leaving the more cosmic speculations in their place. If you can find better lyrics by anyone not named Bob Dylan let me know.
This song is done beautifully in a simple acoustic setting on his independent cassette Highway Angels/Full Moon Rain or with full band on a couple of his Austin Skyline CD. You can’t go wrong with either.
I could go on. He’s got songs about Native Americans, the ghost dance, buffalo returning to the plains, road anthems that you could hear Springsteen singing, or his Bohemian Cowboy Blues about Jack Kerouac. He’s got pure heartbreak songs like Never Be Mine or Blue Nightfall. He’s done several albums worth of Bob Dylan covers and classic blues and other classic covers and deep cuts. Finally, there’s his Trail series of CDs filled with alternate versions, more covers, live cuts, and outtakes. The songs tell the story of a life lived passionately and fully, but also a life examined and dissected with a painter’s eye and a mathematician’s precision. You’d spend a very long, but satisfying time trying to get through it all.
Jim Heald lived in Austin from 1985-1996. He retired from his day job at the end of 2015 and now lives in Sarasota, FL where he continues to perform, write and record. In 2012, he published a book on Canadian Singer-Songwriter-Guitarist Bruce Cockburn called World of Wonders, which is available from Amazon, with a revised and expanded version coming shortly.