"There hasn't been a recording like Will the Circle Be Unbroken in a long time," says J.P. Harris, whose booming, hippie-friendly honky-tonk owes more to the sounds of the Sixties and Seventies – from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to Buck Owens – than the buffed bros of contemporary country.
A Nashville transplant since 2011, Harris teams up with four hometown heroines on this month's Why Don't We Duet in the Road, a collection of old-school country duets. The EP was inspired by Will the Circle Be Unbroken's lengthy guest list, which found icons like Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson singing with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band back in 1972. Looking to tap into that collaborative spirit, Harris reached out to songwriters Nikki Lane, Leigh Nash, Kelsey Waldon and Kristina Murray, who join him on four songs originally recorded by power couples like Johnny Cash and June Carter, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn. Harris calls the project "a pure, honest time capsule of what living in Nashville has been like for me."
"I'm surrounded by an unbelievable music community in this city," he adds, "and I think we're overdue for an album where someone pulls together a group of people from the current era, and we all make a record more for posterity's sake than album sales. It's the idea of continuing a tradition, and sort of having a tablet of country stone literature that can remain for all time."
Why Don't We Duet in the Road was built around a daylong recording session at Ronnie Milsap's former studio in Nashville, with Harris producing the four songs himself. "Three of the guys in the band had gigs that evening," he remembers, "so we got in there at 9 a.m., set everything up and knocked out four songs. Everyone was out by 3:30 that afternoon." The vocal tracks were added later, with singers like Leigh Nash – the Sixpence None the Richer frontwoman turned country crooner, who plays the Dolly Parton to Harris' Porter Wagoner during a guitar-fueled version of "Better Move It On Home" – squeezing in their respective recording sessions between tour dates. [Listen to the entire EP, which makes its premiere today via Rolling Stone Country, below.]
"As a young punk-rock kid, I've always wanted a seven-inch with my name on it," says Harris, who will self-release the project via a one-time-only shipment of hand-numbered vinyl. Once the 500 records are gone, they'll be gone forever.
"It's a helluva lot of work for one guy to do," he admits. "There's nothing economical or reasonable about this project. It's just a labor of love. I want people to know that this music community is tighter and more supportive than just the posed pictures on the Internet. Everybody in Nashville is pretty much working toward the same goal."