Singer Joni Harms has no fears, qualms or unlucky superstitions about the number many folks dread: 13. On the contrary, she embraces that often infamous digit, for a variety of reasons. “My dad was released from the military after World War II on November 13,” Harms begins. “My daughter Olivia was born on June 13 in Room 13 at 1:13 in the afternoon. In military time, that’s 13:13. So, 13 has been very lucky for me.”
Taking that one step further, Harms has titled her latest album “Lucky 13,” which also happens to be the 13th of her career. “A long time ago,” she notes, “I said that if I ever get to do a thirteenth CD, I’m going to put 13 songs on it and title it ‘Lucky 13.’ And I have been fortunate enough to have the chance to do that.” Harms wrote or co-wrote all 13 songs on the album, which is available now.
With “Lucky 13,” Harms sticks to her unique musical style, traditional country with touches of “western” added to the mix. Selections like “Bless the Farmer,” “Horse Sense” and “Sweet Summer Hay” invoke clear images of the golden west and the fend-for-yourself prairie lifestyle, both of which seem as endangered as the Northern spotted owl. Her songs carry the rings of authenticity, mainly because the singer walks the walk of which she speaks. Harms lives on the family farm out in Canby, Oregon, which was settled six generations ago in 1872. And she works it, too, pitching hay, canning fruit and other goodies and tending to additional chores.
“I really do live that simple, western life in Oregon,” says Harms, who’s sporting her trademark cowboy hat and boots on this summer day in Nashville. “The grocery store is ten miles away. We have a little garden that we work. I still try to carry on the tradition of canning, like my mother did, but boy,” she pauses after a smile, “it’s a lot of work. There is such a pride, though, in going down to the fruit cellar in the middle of winter and grabbing a jar of tomatoes that you’ve canned and bringing it in for dinner.” Seems an unnecessary, and time-consuming, task in this era of ready-to-cook food and home delivery. But Harms will maintain that there’s much to be said about the old ways.
She says it, coincidentally, in the tune “Horse Sense” from “Lucky 13,” written by Harms and Nashville songwriter Wood Newton. The song, while on the whimsical side, conjures up a thoughtful premise. What if technology was not always at our immediate disposal, and we had to rely more on our common sense? Or to use one of her dad’s favorite terms, horse sense.
“That is something my dad used to say a lot,” Harms recalls in a wistful tone. “Use a little ‘horse sense.’ I was amazed at how he could always find a way to fix something. Where we lived, we couldn’t always run to the store or buy a tool to repair something. So, he had to figure it out. We went through a lot of duct tape and barbed wire,” she adds, smiling. “And I guess that’s what the song is about – what if we didn’t have all these modern things? It was a fun song to write.”
Harms shifts gears slightly with “Merle,” her tribute to the great Merle Haggard. “He was a great influence on me,” she notes. “His voice and his songwriting ability were just amazing. I had the chance to meet him a couple of times and he was always very kind and complimentary to me. When he passed, I thought I would really like to do a tribute song to him, but I have got to come up with something pretty special. I did some research and came up with some facts I didn’t know and put it all into a song. I was very pleased with how it came out.”
Much like her hero Haggard, Harms writes in a simple, straightforward manner, avoiding an overuse of flowery phrases. She’s also stayed true to a traditional musical style that has kept the “western” in country music while sounding perfectly contemporary and not dated. Perhaps that’s why she’s continued to build a large and loyal following since the late 1980’s, despite a lack of what most would term mainstream success. Her biggest chart hits actually came in 1989, with “I Need a Wife” and “The Only Thing Bluer Than His Eyes.”
But that hasn’t stood in her way. Harms is a consistently big draw on tour, both in the U.S. and overseas, playing a number of festivals along with solo concerts. “I don’t know where they all come from,” she smiles, “but it’s wonderful.” Could this be an indication that traditional country is on the rebound?
“I hope it’s coming back,” Harms says earnestly. “I don’t think of myself as strictly a ‘western’ singer. My style is more traditional country. And I think there are a lot of people out there who miss hearing the traditional country on the radio and would welcome having a little more of that.” That’s not to downplay the current scene, though. “There is certainly room for today’s country along with the traditional,” she explains. “Like this year, I’m doing the Monterey Cowboy Festival and they have some of us western acts, but they also have Jon Pardi and Midland on the bill as well. So, I think that can all fit together.”
In whatever genre she might happen to fit, Harms is simply pleased to have new music out there. “I’m real proud of this CD,” Harms says, beaming. “This one was actually recorded in Ireland. It was a really relaxed atmosphere. The Sheerin family, who is an outstanding family band from Ireland and great friends of mine, had just opened a brand new studio on their farm. So, it was like being at home. Danny Sheerin and I have a duet on the album called ‘I Can See It in Your Eyes’ and that was just a very fun experience. I think this album came out really well.”
“Lucky 13” is available at online retailers now. For more on Joni Harms, visit her website.