Last Thursday, the 24th season of KGSR’s Unplugged at The Grove came to an end as friends and family gathered to celebrate the life of Jimmy LaFave, one of the series’ founding artists. LaFave passed away at his home on May 21st, at the age of 61, due to spindle cell sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. On Thursday, we not only waved goodbye to this season’s Unplugged series but also bid our farewells to an era that LaFave created.
During the summer of 1994, the Americana legend was presented with an intriguing opportunity. Promotional wildcatter, Marsha Milam, was in the process of developing an unplugged music series at Austin’s Shady Grove and requested that LaFave be the series’ opening performer. LaFave had just released his second studio album, Highway Trance, and was beginning to receive national notoriety. He liked Milam’s idea and accepted her offer to open the inaugural Unplugged at the Grove and the rest, as they say, is history. Now, twenty-four successful years later, Unplugged at the Grove is the longest running free music series in Texas and LaFave is the artist that started it all.
With the exception of 2014, LaFave had returned to play Unplugged at The Grove every summer and was scheduled to be the series’ closing act this year. “At one point, I held the all-time attendance record at the Grove,” claimed LaFave when I spoke to him in 2015. Then, with a satisfied smirk he noted, “But, I’m pretty sure that record has been broken by now.”
Considered one of the great songwriters of our time, LaFave helped give name to the Americana genre. His style was simple, yet heartfelt and bold with lyrics often stirring emotions of the open road. Born in Wills Point, TX, LaFave moved to Stillwater, OK during his school years and maintained strong musical ties to the state’s “Red Dirt” style of music throughout his life. It was no secret that Woody Guthrie was one of his main musical inspirations and LaFave even served on the Advisory Board of the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival. However, LaFave had called Austin home since 1986 and credited Butch Hancock as his major local inspiration.
LaFave’s extensive music career spanned nearly five decades and he had received numerous awards and accolades including multiple Austin Music Awards. In May of 2015, he released his seventeenth album, The Night Tribe, along with Trail Four and Trail Five in 2016 on his record label Music Road Records.
He was adamant to spread the Americana genre beyond the reaches of Nashville and his label remains committed to recognizing both up-and-coming and established roots artists. He continued to be inspired by new musicians and was happy to see the genre open up beyond country and into bluegrass, blues and even Jazz. However, as Americana grew more popular and mainstream, LaFave’s style remained his own. “I’ve never drastically changed…I’m pretty much just doing the same stuff I’ve done over and over…I just hope to keep playing as long as I can.”
And LaFave did just that when his farewell concert arrived on May 18 at the Paramount Theatre. Amid friends and family, and the entire Austin music community, LaFave took the stage sitting in a wheelchair and hooked up to an oxygen machine, and led a powerful finale of “Goodnight Irene.” Here’s to hoping LaFave is somewhere out on the open road doing what he’s always done.
Feature photo by: Anie Walsh
LaFave photo by: Phillip Leach