Grammy-nominated Appalachian country singer Jerry Harmon is one of country music's hidden gems. A natural wordsmith, storyteller and raconteur, Jerry has shared the bill with some of the genre's most celebrated musicians: Dolly Parton, Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice, Marty Stuart, Earl Scruggs, and others, along with writing for many artists too. His latest album 'Walk Softly' has been critically acclaimed and demonstrates his unique style and songwriting abilities. He's been performing in the UK for a decade and returns next month for a tour with Steve Young and Connor Adams. We caught up with Jerry at home in Carolina to find out more about his life in music.
PG: You've played with some of the best names in the country business, is there anyone who sticks out most in your mind and why?
JH: They all have been amazing performers, and it's been such an honour to work with some of these people. If I had to pick one that I thought was heads and shoulders above most musicians, it would be Ricky Skaggs. He's a great player and performer.
PG: Country Magazine named your last Album 'Walk Softly' from 2017 as one of the years finest. Are you working on a new one at the moment?
JH: That was a surprise, I didn't know that was coming, and it was such an honour. I'm not working on a new album at the minute. I have of course been writing and getting some songs together, but I won't be starting another album for probably another six months or so.
PG: How was it growing up in the Appalachian Mountains – Does that experience still inform your writing?
JH: It does, I think all songwriters are influenced by their childhood, the place they grew up in and culture. I grew up very much in a family of musicians and storytellers. My great great grandfather brought the Jack Tales to America from over there (England) back in the 1800s, such as Jack and the Beanstalk. There were a lot of those stories that were handed down. My uncle made banjos, my grandfather played the jug and we'd sit down and play music. I grew up very deep in the Appalachian, and I grew up very influenced by the music that my father and grandfather listened to – Uncle Dave Macon, The Carter Family, Bill Monroe. Then I'd listen to Cash and Haggard, and my older siblings were introducing me to Johnny Rivers and The Beatles, so my influences are many. Growing up the way I did, the old school way in the mountains, I think a lot of that comes out in my style of playing and writing.
PG: Why do you think the Appalachian mountains produce so many country and bluegrass musicians?
JH: I think it's because many people who settled in the mountains were from England, Scotland, Germany, Ireland. It was a melting pot of all kinds of influences from Europe that created the old style Appalachian mountain music and bluegrass. In the mountains that's pretty much what everyone did for entertainment, so everybody wrote songs and performed.
PG: You're known as the Smoky Mountain Gypsy – how did you get that title?
JH: It was Doc Watson. I really looked up to and admired him as a performer and we became friends over the years. I was at a festival in Atlanta Georgia, and I spoke to him. Doc was an amazing man, he was blind, but his other senses were very alert. When he heard me he said “that sounds like that old Harmon boy” and I said, “yes sir it's me.” He said “where you been, I've not heard from you in a while?” I said, “rambling around playing this and that on guitar.” He said “you're just a gypsy. We're going to have to call you the smokey mountain gypsy” and that just stuck.
PG: You are a self-taught guitar player, who was your inspiration?
JH: I started playing the guitar around ten years old. One of my earliest inspirations was Maybelle Carter, from the Carter family. I listened to a lot of the old mountain musicians. I heard that style of pickin'; the cross pickin' the flat pickin,' I was mesmerized and knew that I wanted to do that too.
PG: Your lyrics are quite witty e.g. 'Grandma's Are Sexy Too'. Does being humorous with your words come easy?
JH: It did when I wrote that song. Actually what inspired that song was one lady that was the essence of class, extremely beautiful at one of my shows. She was probably in her fifties, and I remember thinking why do people only think that young girls are pretty? And that's what inspired me to write that song.
PG: Does anything, in particular, inspire you to write?
JH: Not really, because I never know when it's going to come. I have written songs by strumming the guitar, and some lyrics would start to form in my head. Somebody asked me how I wrote the songs the way I do, and I don't know. I just hold the pencil. I can't honestly tell someone 'this is how you write a song'. A lot of times I get an idea, and then I will work the words around it.
PG: As is the custom with country music the 'storytelling' is key, does that come easily to you?
JH: It does, my late cousin and my mother were great storytellers. I don't know for sure if it was because I was around it so much or if it's something that's been passed through my genes, but it does seem to come naturally to me.
PG: What are your favorite 'story songs'?
JH: There are a lot of them, it would be hard for me to pick. But there's a lot of writers from Johnny Cash to John Prine, Gordon Lightfoot, there are so many great writers that I admire and have written lyrics that were especially touching and have a great meaning.
PG: Country music has evolved into various genres, e.g. country rock, outlaw, etc. How do you see it changing in the future?
JH: It's so hard to predict. We have so many artists now that are doing what I'd refer to as the old country. Some artists are coming out, Chris Stapleton and others who are doing that kind of country that we listened to years ago but the lyrics are more modern. I love seeing the young people making country music. The only thing consistent in life is change, and it has changed so much. I would love to be able to say that Nashville works for different kinds of art, but that's not reality. I've worked with different people in Nashville over the years, and the record labels look for what they can sell. They target the young girls and the ladies, that's just a reality because that's who they sell most of the material to. In Nashville for the record labels, it's not about what is the best music; it's about what can we sell?
PG: That's the same whatever the genre of music isn't it?
JH: It is. It's a business they're not concerned with how good your song is or how well it's written or the melody they want to know if they can sell it. The sad part about that is a lot of the best songs and artists drop through the cracks, and nobody ever hears them on a large scale. I've run the gauntlet, I've played in rock and roll bands and played a lot of different styles of music. What I found was, and I've heard this so many times it's a cliché, be true to yourself. I came back full circle to my acoustic guitar and did what I've always done. The key is not to try and be a protegee of someone else, don't try to emulate anyone, you have to bring something different to the table, it has to be something people want to hear, and you have to perform it well. Then you are doing what your true love and passion is, and you have a chance of being successful because you are doing what comes naturally to you.
PG: What's next?
JH: Once this tour is finished, I go back to Nashville and work with some publishers. I also write songs that are pitched to commercial artists. Then I plan to take a couple of months off and go on my boat and play on the lake, write some songs and get back on the road again. I should be back in the UK in the fall, and I've got some festivals there. I've been performing in the UK for a decade, mostly a couple of times annually and I love coming to the UK, and I will continue coming there for as long as possible. One thing I love about you guys is that it doesn't matter to you about commercial music, you guys don't really care. You're not brainwashed by what Nashville tells you, you pick and choose what you like, and that means a lot to a performer like myself.
12th - John Peel Centre, Stowmarket
16th - King Tuts, Glasgow
17th - Castle Hotel, Manchester
18th - Henry Tudor House, Shrewsbury
19th - Slaughtered Lamb, London