Jimmy LaFave: A Red Dirt Music Legend

 

Stillwater original and Red Dirt music icon Jimmy LaFave was a pivotal figure in the vibrant tapestry of our city’s music scene and beyond. Born in Wills Point, Texas, on July 12, 1955, Jimmy LaFave's journey as a singer-songwriter and folk musician took root and blossomed right here in the heart of Oklahoma.

 

Jimmy LaFave Stillwater High School Yearbook Photo - 1973
Stillwater High School Yearbook, 1973

 

Early Days in Stillwater

LaFave's family moved from Texas to Stillwater during his formative years, where he played drums in the school band before picking up the guitar at the age of 15. This first guitar, acquired through his mother’s collection of S&H Green Stamps, marked the beginning of a singular musical journey which saw him evolve from a school-aged percussionist into a budding singer/songwriter. In these early years, LaFave developed a love for the freedom of America's backroads and highways as he accompanied his father on road trips to make deliveries for his parts supply business and the open road theme played prominently in his future songwriting. His musical leanings were further shaped by his admiration for the music of Oklahoma folk legend Woody Guthrie. 

 

 

Jimmy LaFave in his Stillwater Days
Jimmy LaFave in his Stillwater Days from jimmylafave.com

 

The Emergence of Red Dirt Music

From digging into slices at the Original Hideaway Pizza to delving into musical explorations with his fellow local luminaries, Stillwater became integral to LaFave's development. He began writing and singing his own songs in 1974. "Moving to Oklahoma had this profound effect on my music,” LaFave said. “Stillwater really is a special kind of musical place. The people who come from there know what I’m talking about. I soaked up all the music that was there."

 

Jimmy LaFave at The Farm
Jimmy LaFave at The Farm Playing a guitar owned by Danny Pierce who was one of the lessees of The Farm.



In the late 1970s, these explorations led LaFave, along with others like Bob Childers and Terry "Buffalo" Ware, to begin shaping the genre known as Red Dirt music. They often met to jam and exchange ideas at “The Farm,” an old farmhouse on the outskirts of town which served as a kind of creative hub for the area. The sound developed here influenced an entire generation who were drawn to the genre’s unique blend of country, rock, blues and folk, and Red Dirt music was born.

 

Jimmy LaFave in Stillwater Early 19802 by Mark Lyon
Jimmy LaFave in Stillwater Early 1980s. Photo by Mark Lyon.

 

Stillwater's Musical Pulse

LaFave's impact on Stillwater's nightlife was significant. From early gigs with The Night Tribe at venues like Shakey's and Pistol Patty's, to owning and operating a club called Up Your Alley, LaFave was a central figure in the town's music scene. His influence extended to nurturing young talents like Garth Brooks, who opened for LaFave at Pistol Patty's in his early days.

 

Jimmy LaFave c. 1986
Jimmy LaFave circa 1986 Photo by Niles J. Fuler

 

In the 1979-1981 time period, LaFave was finding some success touring the southwestern U.S. with his band Night Tribe. During these years he independently recorded the albums Down Under and Broken Line. LaFave continued to be inspired by the open road and insisted on driving to most gigs, when it would have been easier to fly. He heard that Bob Dylan – another of his favorite artists – found inspiration in road signs while on the road touring and decided he could do the same.

 

Jimmy LaFave Austin Skyline Album Cover
Jimmy LaFave Austin Skyline album cover


The Austin Years and Beyond

In 1986 LaFave relocated to Austin, Texas, where he continued to refine his craft and expand his musical horizons. He became a fixture in the local music scene, known for his soulful voice and evocative songwriting. LaFave self–produced his critically acclaimed Austin Skyline in 1992, drawing international attention to his talents. He received radio play on more than 200 stations, and the album was distributed internationally as his popularity grew. His follow-up album, Highway Trance, was released in 1994 closely followed by Buffalo Return to the Plains in 1995 while he was touring extensively across the United States and in Europe.

 

Jimmy LaFave - Highway Trance Album Cover
Jimmy LaFave Highway Trance album cover

 

In 1996, LaFave performed on the Austin City Limits PBS TV show. Also in 1996, he won a second consecutive Austin Music Award for Best Singer/Songwriter. One of the honors that meant the most to LaFave that year was being invited to perform at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute to Wood Guthrie, his musical hero. In 1997 he booked two tours through Europe and also toured in Canada in support of his new release, Road Novel.

 

 

Jimmy LaFave in Concert
Jimmy LaFave in Concert


Legacy and Recognition

Jimmy LaFave's achievements were celebrated during his lifetime and endure well beyond his 2017 passing. Inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame and honored with the first annual Restless Spirit Award that year, LaFave's legacy lives on through his soul-stirring music and enduring influence on the Red Dirt and folk traditions. His work transcends borders and genres, reflecting a profound connection to both Oklahoma's artistic landscape and the universal themes of love, longing, and the open road which it explores. 

 

Jimmy LaFave Performing
Jimmy LaFave in Concert


Each year, the Red Dirt Relief Fund, an organization offering support to Oklahoma's musicians who meet with unforeseen hardships, hosts the Jimmy LaFave Songwriting Contest. Open to unsigned Oklahoma songwriters of all genres, the contest employs a panel of renowned songwriters and industry professionals as judges, awarding cash prizes for both the judges' number-one pick and a people's choice award determined by online voting.

 

Gypsy Cafe Festival Finale
Gypsy Cafe Festival Finale

 

Music lovers flock to Stillwater each May to feast their ears on the huge lineup of artists and bands performing in venues across town during the Bob Childers’ Gypsy Cafe. This is Oklahoma’s largest music festival for homegrown songwriters, nearly all of whom acknowledge the singular talent and influence of Jimmy LaFave. Pay a visit yourself and join in celebrating his legacy during this toe-tapping tribute to the power of Red Dirt music to unite and inspire.