A Texas singer/songwriter once said of Jimmy LaFave early in his career: "He's got a ton of talent and a vision, now all he needs is a personality." This was as complimentary and positive a criticism as can be made of an artist early on, when they are still honing their vision, figuring out what works, live and in the studio, and what doesn't. LaFave has been on as restless a journey as a songwriter can embark upon. He's a person who doesn't like to be produced; he likes the raw bar band stuff and demands he be true to himself both on record and on the road. He's a romantic, a true one, with wanderlust. He's not a philosopher, he's a man who is rooted deeply in the Oklahoma red dirt and its unique history, especially the dust bowl and the soil and the wide open spaces of Texas, and by what he's been, not just where, and no one would argue that the songs weren't there from the beginning: "Buffalo Return to the Plains," the title track from his 1995 album, is an excellent example. But no one can argue that on his last three recordings, 2001's Texoma, 2005's Blue Nightfall, and here, on Cimarron Manifesto, he's onto something, though just what that is is mercurial, and perhaps could use the guidance of a very sensitive and firm producer to bring it out in a different way, but it's in the songs to be sure and there is an established personality in there, a stamp that is indelible. It's tattooed on the inside, on the heart where it belongs.
LaFave offers 12 cuts, three of which are covers. And speaking of covers, the ones on the CD tells you a lot about what's inside, but it doesn't give it all away. LaFave is standing to the left of a split on an empty street in the middle of the night. He's in the background almost, the forlorn street and an old hotel, whose lights are extinguished, are the real subjects here. The left side of the road, the street lights, and LaFave in the middle of the emptiness standing firm sums it up. (No major label would have ever gone for this cover, though it's utterly striking and, in its own way, intense.) The album opens with "Car Outside." With help from Kacy Crowley on backing vocals, the sum total of LaFave's "manifesto" shows up and reveals itself in full, all the while digging at the heart of every person who feels the need to just go, no matter what it costs. It's not the need to escape; it's the need to just go.
In four/four rock shuffle time, LaFave is as full of simple poetic romance and the ragged weariness and restlessness as Doc Pomus (who would contain a universe in a few lines and combine all the elements within them, as in "Lonely Avenue") and LaFave can do the same in certain songs here. In a few minutes, with a refrain that repeats almost too often, he and Crowley lay out the essence of his protagonist's character. He doesn't have to go alone, he extends an offer, but seeing a highway, he needs to go, with or without her. It's then that we realize the offer is half-hearted and he's already gone. This is the other side of Bruce Springsteen's "Thunder Road." This isn't about hope, desperation or redemption, it's a song about what is: the lost highway of the soul and the need to stay on it, heading toward an unknown that is enough in itself because it's all passing so quickly: the nation, the daylight, the number of connections any human being can make with another. Of course it can't be reached and the singer knows that, but that's not the point. The band here supports LaFave well and includes guitarists Andrew Hardin, John Inmon, and dobro/lap steel boss Jeff Plakenhorn with B-3 player and pianist Radoslav Lorkovic. The B-3 has a central role on this album, it is its atmosphere, the place the guitars can enter and float through because it is as constant as the sky itself, the album's centerpiece and the extension of "Car Outside." This is Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath extended to the entire world and told so simply in a country song. The Woody Guthrie in LaFave isn't a pose. In this song he's seeing the horror of the dust bowl spread out over the entirety of America where the poor and suffering increase as his nation abandons itself to oblivion on foreign soil and spreads the sickness in its soul. There's nothing nostalgic in this tune; it's as current as his next breath and the one that just passed. In under five minutes LaFave spells it out to the whine of a dobro, a brushed snare and fiddles, and Carrie Rodriguez's backing vocal. As the protagonist in the "car outside" moves on the highway he reflects on the question of a war that makes no sense to him and the death of people because of it that nonetheless bears the stamp of this nation's loss of identity. "The only thing I know to say my friends/I simply want my country back, again/I've been driving through the American night/And I slowly watch my freedoms, disappear right out of sight/Traveling through this land...." Rodriguez's lonely fiddle solo offers both motion and elegy, and LaFave sings: "I see people/just stranded by the road/The hopeless and forgotten/Where all the milk and honey flows/Traveling through/this land." There is no metaphor, it's Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath in the streets of American cities, towns and rural communities, while its sons and daughter die on foreign soil.
The blues come to roost on "Truth," a B-3 and dirty guitar driven rocker (that could have been more ragged, but whatever) where the driver's got J.J. Cale on the box in the "red dirt night" and he's looking at the truth of comfort, the truth of the flesh. It's got to be the only tune where the phrase "the truth will set you free" is equated with the hip shake of a beautiful woman. It's got humor in its desperation. There are some songs about family: "Lucky Man" (a track that would not have been out of place on Springsteen's Tunnel of Love album) -- perhaps LaFave's character would like to be lucky and even hopes for. In fact, "Hideaway Girl" and "Home Once Again" reflect the other side of LaFave's songwriting character, but by the time we get to "That's the Way It Goes," a rock & roll tune that humorously mourns the death of the greatest characters in the music who've either sold out (Johnny B. Goode goes to work for the C.I.A.), disappeared, or been erased because of the music biz. (Pomus would have loved this song because it sums up the way he felt long before he passed away.) And then there are the covers. First things first and it's the thing that is sometimes head scratching about LaFave's records: you have to have balls to cover Donovan's "Catch the Wind," but he does it, soft, and slow and sweet. It fits with "Car Outside" but is a seemingly curious cut to follow that song with, until you get deeper into the recording. The two other covers are an otherworldly reading of Bob Dylan's "Not Dark Yet" that encapsulates everything LaFave's protagonist feels; it's done with real vulnerability and grace. The other is a funky, bluesy version of Joe South's "Walk a Mile in My Shoes" that brings it back into collective memory as the folk song it is. And ultimately that's what LaFave establishes himself as on these last three recordings, a writer and singer of songs n the country, blues and rock idioms that are ultimately folk songs. They are offered by him as a way of connecting, even for the briefest of moments, in something approaching community. It's the community of shared experience, inside and out, with all those other lost souls wandering through their lives wondering what the hell happened, or the other ones: those ever on some lost highway road chasing something undefined and perhaps unattainable as life flies by them on the right. The need for home is apparent everywhere, even if home becomes ever more of a myth in these dark times, all of this is in the reedy, sweet smoky voice of LaFave. He's been on a roll, and he shows no signs of slowing down. With the right producer, someone who understands his independent nature and can focus it further, he'd become a household name; he still might. As fine a record as you're likely to hear in the idiom, Cimarron Manifesto is for all of us. You will hear yourself thinking and be caught in your emotions as you listen; you've been some of these people, and that's the kind of connection the best singer and songwriters make.