Brought To You By NSU; Written by Regina Brossett
Country music artist Hugh Harris will be leading a tribute to the late Hank Williams, Sr. with his band Hugh Harris and the Drifting Cowboys at the 43rd NSU-Natchitoches Folk Festival at Prather Coliseum on July 22. The band will be performing on the Main Stage at 12 p.m. Harris will also be inducted into the Louisiana Folklife Center Hall of Master Folk Artists at the festival’s ceremony for his many years of dedication and contributions to keeping traditional country music alive.
Harris was born in Baton Rouge. His interest in Williams began at age five when he first heard and sang “Jambalaya” during rehearsal for his kindergarten graduation commencement program. Harris went home from school singing “Jambalaya,” and he remembers his mother saying, “I’ve got a record of that!” The record was “Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits,” and Harris admits, “I basically played that thing until the grooves wore out…and by the time I had listened to it that much, I could sing a Hank Williams song…and that’s how that happened.”
By his grade-school years, Harris had discovered early country music in general and he became enthralled by his discovery. As he grew, so did his love for the sounds and lyrics of the old country songs. Harris explains that the country music genre is unique in that “Country music has always been the music of the have-nots. It has always been important to common people, and more important during hard times than in good times.” Harris was particularly struck by the works of Williams because he recognized that Williams had a gift for reaching everyday people through lyrics that could easily apply to their life or situation. Harris believes that “The paradox of writing a song is to write something that is so uniquely about you, that it applies to everybody, and Williams was an absolute master at that.” For this reason, Harris says Williams has been called “The Great Communicator,” and Harris continues to reach people through Williams’ songs.
Harris was singing and performing in church and at local gatherings all through his school years and he grew accustomed to folks telling him, “You sound just like Hank Williams!” After graduating high school, he appeared at writers’ nights and gave other performances at clubs in Nashville, eventually becoming recognized at the world-famous Blue Bird Café as a songwriter with the right stuff. He attended Northeast Mississippi Community College, graduating with an associate degree in country music. While there, he was a member of NEMCC’s traveling band, Campus Country, and appeared with such artists as Michael Martin Murphy and Dan Seals.
Harris has performed his music as well as that of Williams and other historical country artists at festivals and other venues in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, and California. In 1998, he made the acquaintance of Terry Huval and other members of the Jambalaya Cajun Band, and together they have performed at other venues and festivals, delivering music distinctly reminiscent of the early days of country, honky-tonk and western swing music. The collaboration also led to the writing and production of a stage play based on the life of Williams, which has been performed in multiple theaters around the state. Harris has appeared with such Louisiana musical legends as D.L. Menard and Jo-el Sonnier; performed with Don Helms, Hank Williams’ legendary steel guitar player, as well as other musicians who had previously traveled and played as members of Hank’s bands; and done shows with the likes of Gene Watson, Don Williams, John Anderson, Loretta Lynn and George Jones.
Harris continues to travel and play music at each opportunity, following a motto he established a long time ago to “Keep it country.” He takes any chance to further the enjoyment and appreciation of traditional country music, and he offers these words to all people and especially aspiring artists: “Follow your heart. Do what feels right to you. There was a five-year-old kid back there somewhere that knew singing these songs was the right thing to do. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t.”
The 43rd annual Natchitoches-NSU Louisiana Folklife Festival will be held in air-conditioned Prather Coliseum, located at 220 South Jefferson Street at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches. The festival’s curated showcase of Louisiana folk musicians, food vendors, and traditional crafts persons will open at 9 a.m. with live entertainment scheduled for 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. A collection of dozens of craftspeople displaying and selling their works, and several live demonstrations and panel discussions will be held throughout the festival. The family-oriented festival is fully wheelchair accessible. Children 12 and under are admitted free. Tickets are $10 at the door for all events, or $6 for an evening pass to all events after 5 p.m.
Support for the festival is provided by grants from the Cane River National Heritage Area, Inc., the City of Natchitoches, the Louisiana Division of the Arts Decentralized Arts Fund Program, the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, the Louisiana Office of Tourism, the Natchitoches Historic District Development Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, the Shreveport Regional Arts Council and the State of Louisiana.