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No one stands in Joni Harms' way

By John Lupton, November 2001

More than 60 years ago, the late Patsy Montana opened the door for women in country & western music with her million-seller (the first by a female country artist) "I Want To Be A Cowboy's Sweetheart," an anthem to ridin' the range and all-around good, clean living that is still one of the most frequently covered songs in all of country music. For Oregon native and resident Joni Harms, it's more than just a symbol of the music she makes a living at, it's the only life she's ever known.

Raised on the family ranch that she still calls home, she was a teenage rodeo queen before embarking on a career as a singer and songwriter that has resulted in a series of albums throughout the '80's and '90's on a variety of labels, including her new release "After All" on the Real West label.

Harms, 42 in November, is keenly aware of the debt she owes to the musical cowgirls who preceded her.

"'Cowboy's Sweetheart' was one of the very first tunes I ever learned," she says. "My mom taught me that when I was about four years old, and I sang it at some rodeos and things that were around the area, so yes, in a lot of ways she (Montana) was (an influence), or at least that song was, and then, you know, I always have thought the world of Dale Evans...(I) just loved the whole Western dress and lifestyle and pretty much grew up living it out here on the ranch."

Western music, long lumped together with "Country" in a generic sense, also meant something distinctly different to Harms, and she sees the difference becoming even more pronounced in recent years as mainstream Nashville becomes harder and harder to separate from the pop sounds coming from L.A. and New York.

"Western music still definitely has the steel guitar, the twin fiddles and things that really make it country music to me, but a lot of it is missing in today's country radio. You just never know what you're going to hear on that, and you certainly don't need to have the twang of a steel guitar and twin fiddles to get played on country radio anymore."

After making it onto the country charts a couple of times about a dozen years ago, in 1998, Harms was on top of the world following the major-label release of "Cowgirl Dreams" on Warner Western, a Warner Brothers subsidiary that had grown out of the success, to a large degree, of the series of cowboy music albums put out in the early '90's by Michael Martin Murphey and others.

The album garnered enthusiastic reviews, and she felt like she had achieved the artistic freedom that eludes so many who get trapped in the machinery of the music business.

"I thought I'd really found my spot, from the way I was able to go in and record material that I really wanted, and had written, and the whole packaging of the album was just really 'Joni Harms', and I thought 'ahhh, this is the way it's supposed to be!'"

The euphoria didn't last long, though.

Not long after "Cowgirl Dreams" hit the stores she got the word that Warner would be pulling the plug on their Western operations.

"Well, once again, my story continued. Just thinking I'd gotten things going the way I wanted them to, and then the Warner Western label closed. I visited quite a long while with (Warner exec) Jim Ed Norman about the possibility of even staying on Warner Brothers, but it wasn't going to be the kind of music I wanted to do, so I was without a label again and decided though that that was about the third time that it had happened to me (I needed to leave)..."

For a former rodeo queen, getting thrown from the saddle is not a reason for panic, it just means it's time to get up, dust yourself off, and get back on the horse. She set about the task of keeping her music and career going, even if it meant becoming her own producer and distributor again.

"I said I've done it before, where I made albums on my own, I'll do it again, so in that time frame right there I did my children's album (the amusingly titled 'Are We There Yet?'), which has been a very big success, kind of surprisingly to me, but it has been...I've been starting to look into the possibility of having it picked up by some other labels, but right now Four Winds distributes it quite well for me."

As she made plans for her next album, she continued touring and keeping close contact with her fan base, until fate intervened again.

"I was playing in Elko, Nevada, at the big cowboy gathering there last January, and I was approached there by one of the gentlemen from the Real West label, and we just started visiting about the idea of doing it...I was just getting ready to do another Western album on my own, because I've got to follow up 'Cowgirl Dreams' one thing led to another, and so far, wonderful on this label. I really enjoy working with them, and they seem like they 'get it' as far as Western music goes."

She pauses a few seconds, and laughs as she adds, "We've got a several-album deal, and as long as they don't close their doors..."

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