R.I.P. Jimmy LaFave

Songwriter passes days after legendary performance

Days after a grand, emo­tion­al good­bye with his sold-out Song­writer Ren­dezvous at the Para­mount The­atre last Thurs­day, Austin song­writer Jim­my LaFave died Sun­day, con­firmed his label Music Road Records. He was 61.

An acclaimed, endur­ing fig­ure on the Amer­i­cana scene blessed with an emo­tive voice both grit­ty and gor­geous, and a knack for patient, mov­ing song­writ­ing, passed after a bat­tle with can­cer in his home, sur­round­ed by friends and fam­i­ly.

News of LaFave’s ill­ness, a type of sar­co­ma that pri­mar­i­ly affect­ed his lungs, was large­ly kept secret until recent­ly. Last Novem­ber, in an unpub­lished inter­view about his label’s ties to Ener­gy Trans­fer Part­ner CEO Kel­cy War­ren, he revealed to “Play­back” that he was ter­mi­nal­ly ill with can­cer. Last month, news broke that LaFave’s fam­i­ly had final­ly engaged hos­pice care.

I’m a dead man walk­ing,” LaFave told “Play­back,” “but I’m going to go out in the pres­ence of laugh­ter, music, and friends.”

That proved mov­ing­ly true. A day lat­er, he per­formed to a sold-out crowd at Threadgill’s World Head­quar­ters, flanked by friends includ­ing Eliza Gilkyson, Slaid Cleaves, and Ray Bon­neville, who rotat­ed singing duties. LaFave, known for work­ing copi­ous Bob Dylan cov­ers into his con­certs, brought tears to many in atten­dance with “You’re Gonna Make Me Lone­some When You Go.”

I did bring my oxy­gen machine,” LaFave offered that night. “I’m not wor­ried about being breath­less from the can­cer. I’m breath­less from all the love.”

When his farewell con­cert arrived May 18, some with­in his inner cir­cle won­dered if he’d have enough strength to attend. All of Austin’s music com­mu­ni­ty not in the charged house were up onstage, guests includ­ing Chris­tine Albert, Sarah Lee Guthrie, John Full­bright, Shinyribs, Butch Han­cock, and Ruthie Fos­ter per­form­ing a set list that served as the Austin-by-way-of-Okla­homa songman’s music eulo­gy. Amid a pal­pa­ble atmos­phere of love and rev­er­ence, LaFave even­tu­al­ly took the stage sit­ting in a wheel­chair and hooked up to an oxy­gen machine, and led a pow­er­ful finale of “Good­night Irene.”

Read the review and view the pho­tos of Jimmy’s last per­for­mance here(*).



I Love You, Jimmy

Nearly four-hour LaFave convergence petitions a greater good

As mid­night neared Thurs­day at the every-last-seat-sold Para­mount The­atre, Jim­my LaFave’s 10 min­utes onstage turned the show’s refrain back on his flock: “I love you all. Thank you so much. I love you.” Amid tears hours ear­li­er, writer Dave Marsh rec­og­nized the evening’s jubi­la­tion not sim­ply as a pledge by Austin to LaFave but more so his dying wish for us.

Jim­my LaFave dur­ing the grand finale of Jim­my LaFave Song­writer Ren­dezvous (Pho­to by Jana Birchum)
LaFave aid­ed by Chris­tine Albert and his son Jack­son next to her (Pho­to by Jana Birchum)
Pho­to by Jana Birchum

As the world devolves into trib­al­is­tic hos­til­i­ty, dystopia final­ly decamped on our doorstep, mankind still hasn’t split the intraspecies atom sep­a­rat­ing any part of itself from anoth­er. Kill, maim, hate – any mani­ac can per­pe­trate geno­cide – but even the damned have moth­ers, fathers, pets. No one gets out of here alive and that exact same num­ber can’t escape per­son­al loss any more than they can stem the 4.3 new humans occur­ring every wak­ing sec­ond on Earth.

Life and death teth­ers us all togeth­er whether we acknowl­edge it or not. All com­mu­ni­ties cel­e­brate and record births, and when the oth­er side of the scales adjust to bal­ance that out, all com­mon­wealths mark death and even fete it. There exists one sole fab­ric that can’t be rent.

This show is Jimmy’s gift to you,” announced one of its orga­niz­ers and strongest voic­es, Chris­tine Albert. “Every choice made at this con­cert was Jimmy’s wish.”

Let­ting go of some­one may gut you one scin­til­la less when that per­son express­ly aids those around them to that end. Jim­my LaFave, ter­mi­nal­ly frail in a wheel­chair as he led a stand­ing house in “Good­night Irene,” allowed some 1,300 music fanat­ics of his adopt­ed home­town to say their good­byes to him, while mak­ing a last request of them that con­sumes his heart more than even can­cer. A sharp pair of eyes would’ve already spot­ted that pre­cious con­cern – 15 a week ago today – stand­ing behind him among a cho­rus of some 50 strong.

This is my son Jack­son,” cried LaFave. “Take care of him please. I love him so very much. Take him into the com­mu­ni­ty and nur­ture him.”

Not even Sarah Lee Guthrie read­ing an essay by her grand­fa­ther Woody Guthrie – LaFave’s north star as a writer, per­former, inter­preter – about the only thing that mat­ters in this world could pre­pare any­one for the stark real­i­ty of the con­cert curator’s ulti­mate plea. Nei­ther could the pro­nounce­ment made by near­ly every per­former after almost two-dozen song offer­ings: “I love you, Jim­my.” If it takes a vil­lage to raise a grownup, at least 1,300 Aus­tinites will nev­er let Jack­son LaFave’s feet touch the ground. His serene smile and preter­nat­ur­al teen beau­ty reflect­ed all that came before, not one minute of it fune­re­al.

Open an artery and what flows out does so thick and sat­u­rat­ed in shades of red rarely pro­duced any­where else in nature. Jim­my LaFave prac­ti­cal­ly invent­ed that key, and many of the goose bumps raised last night, all night tapped that vein, begin­ning with Albert in the third slot – one song and off by every artist as paced by ted­dy bear emcee Jody Den­berg. Each one looked down to a stage-front sec­tion of LaFaves sit­ting around their ail­ing focal point and said their “peace and love,” to quote Guthrie.

Ellis Paul’s climb­ing tenor evoked LaFave’s pleas­ing­ly so on “I Ain’t No Jesus,” a tune from his new album. Far from field­ing a hoo­te­nan­ny of all LaFave mate­r­i­al, the playlist mak­er assem­bled a mas­ter­ful mosa­ic of old and new, his and theirs, as spined by Guthrie, for whom many (LaFave, Eliza Gilkyson, Slaid Cleaves) had spent a dozen years on the road spread­ing his gospel. Tish Hino­josa and Abra Moore dust­ed off siren songs that had prompt­ed LaFave to fold them into his cre­ative harem.

Sarah and Cathy Guthrie, Arlo Guthrie’s daugh­ters, hushed a rev­er­ent yet uplift­ed audi­ence expe­ri­enc­ing a once-in-a-life­time emo­tion­al roller­coast­er of a show with their grandad’s “Hobo’s Lul­la­by.” After a 90-minute first set and inter­mis­sion, Slaid Cleaves’ “This Morn­ing I Am Born Again,” a co-write with Woody Guthrie that LaFave famous­ly facil­i­tat­ed, rang a sim­i­lar grav­i­tas. Gretchen Peters cov­ered LaFave cov­er­ing her, the two com­po­si­tion­al voic­es now insep­a­ra­ble in this instance.

Round­ing the last bend, rau­cous gospel from Ruthie Fos­ter raised the roof, as did Mar­cia Ball’s Jer­ry Lee Lewis piano pound­ing for her turn. Hands down, Michael Fra­cas­so sum­moned LaFave the best, his del­i­cate, tremu­lous voice eeri­ly evoca­tive of the cel­e­brant. In case the future biopic on Jim­my LaFave can’t secure the rights to his cat­a­log, Fra­cas­so can sub­sti­tute in a heart­break.

An inher­ent fem­i­nin­i­ty in LaFave’s dove-like keen didn’t stop the men­folk from stomp­ing and hol­ler­ing, whether Kevin “Shinyribs” Russell’s uproar­i­ous dance num­ber, or Butch Han­cock boom­ing the man of the hour’s “Des­per­ate Men Do Des­per­ate Things” from his 1992 local bow Austin Sky­line. LaFave’s Okie roots glowed gin­ger in John Full­bright at the piano. A sev­en-strong back­ing band led by Chris Gage and mem­bers of LaFave’s band, includ­ing gui­tarist John Inmon and key­boardist Radoslav Lorkovic, ced­ed most of the spot­light to Aussie man­dolin great Kym Warn­er of Austin’s one­time Green­car­ds.

Every note appeared cov­ered by two cam­eras, one at either side of the stage, so Jim­my LaFave Song­writer Ren­dezvous will some day sing of a divine Austin sup­pli­cant who pied-pipered the entire female race and many of their atten­dant dudes to a sound­cloud of deep, rich lux­u­ry and naked feel­ing. A decade ago at Audi­to­ri­um Shores, Stephen Bru­ton received a sim­i­lar send-off. Jim­my LaFave’s earned his own seat at the right hand of our mak­er.

Full pho­to gallery here.

Jim­my LaFave Song­writer Ren­dezvous set list,
Para­mount The­atre, 5.18.17


1) Jaimee Har­ris, “Rest­less Spir­its”
2) Ray Bon­neville, “The Night Tribe”
3) Chris­tine Albert, “Every­time”
4) Sam Bak­er, “Migrants/Deportee”
5) Ellis Paul, “I Ain’t No Jesus”
6) Tish Hino­josa, “Only One Angel”
7) Shinyribs, “Austin After Mid­night”
8) Kevin Welch, “Ear­ly Sum­mer Rain”
9) Sarah & Cathy Guthrie, “Hobo’s Lul­la­by”
10) Rib­bon of High­way Cast (incl. Joe Ely), “Lone­some Val­ley”


1) John Full­bright, “Song for a Child”
2) Slaid Cleaves, “This Morn­ing I Was Born Again”
3) Butch Han­cock, “Des­per­ate Men Do Des­per­ate Things”
4) Abra Moore, “Hawai­ian Love Song”
5) Michael Fra­cas­so, “Revival”
6) Mar­cia Ball, “Through the Neon Night”
7) Gretchen Peters, “On a Bus to St. Cloud”
8) Eliza Gilkyson, “Riv­er Road”
9) Ruthie Fos­ter, “Joy Comes Back”
10) Finale: “I’ll Fly Away” / “This Land Is Your Land” / “Good­night Irene”



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