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Joni Harms put the western back in country

By David McPherson, June 2004

Raising 2 children, Christmas trees and quarter horses, all the while keeping a 132-year-old ranch running would be a full-time job for most mothers, but then again, country-western singer Joni Harms is not like most mothers.

Taking a break from preparing dinner on a late May evening on her family ranch, the homebody Harms talks about the importance of family values, her new record label and balancing life on the ranch and life on the road.

Harms' great great grandfather homesteaded the ranch in Canby, Ore. in 1872. She and her husband are now buying the land from her parents (who are in their 80's and still live on the ranch), ensuring it's kept in the family.

Part of this preservation involved a new home since the foundation of the original farmhouse was not really repairable. "I hated to take it down, but we rebuilt it on the same location, and I hope it's a place that will be here for another 100 years," she says.

Juggling the family responsibilities of taking care of two generations is definitely a challenge, but the rewards far outweigh the frustrations.

"Sometimes I feel like I have four children," laughs Harms, 44. "It's really special though for the kids to get to see their grandparents every day and experience things with them that they otherwise wouldn't be able to. I'm grateful for that opportunity."

So, how does Harm, who recently released "Let's Put the Western Back in the Country" on a Texas-based label, juggle family and a life in the country music business?"It isn't always easy," she says. "There is never a dull moment. My days are always full. Since my son is still in kindergarten, he still comes home for lunch at 12:30 every day. I wouldn't trade those times because it's very important for me to be there. When I am on the road, I'm totally away from them, and that's hard, but that's what they have always known since they were babies. When mom goes to work she leaves. But then when I'm home, I'm there 24 hours a day with the exception of little errands that I have to run."

Sporting a Stetson and riding on the range is where this cowgirl is most at home. Not surprisingly, it's also where the inspiration for many of her songs comes from.

"I get a lot of songwriting ideas riding a horse," says the Western Music Association 2003 Female Vocalist of the Year. "When I go out on a ride I always carry a notepad and jot down song titles or song ideas as they come to me."

With little free time back at the homestead, these ideas are then usually fleshed out at a later date with co-writers in Nashville.

The singer-songwriter harks back to old ways and old time country and western singers with the emphasis on western, singing about the land, the Western lifestyle and family values.

Her latest album showcases these themes with 13 songs about family, love and hard work. As she sings in the title track: "They used to call it country and western/Could someone tell me where the Western went/Did it stray from the herd like some poor doggy/That wound up tangled in a barbed-wire fence."

Throughout her country career, Harms has always straddled the fence and strayed a few notes from the mainstream country establishment, all the while crusading for a genre she believes in. It's not that she doesn't like some of today's country artists - she even admits to listening to today's country when she listens to the radio - it's just that she feels today's country is infused with too many electric guitars and is marked by a more pop-rock sound.

"I'm not in any way, shape or form putting down what is being done in Nashville. I just feel that there is some room still for the traditional music for those of us that still love it," she says. "I would love to see it (Western music) get back on country radio too. I believe that there's enough folks out there that would really enjoy hearing a little more variety on the format of country music and that our music is modern enough that it can fit in."

What attract Harms to the Western part of Country and Western are the lyrical subject matter and the instrumentation.

"I love the real true family values," she says. "My goal is to write songs that inspire you. If I could have somebody's day turn out a little bit better because they heard my song on the way to work or coming home from work, then I would feel a great reward."

"I also think that the steel guitar and fiddle don't exist in enough of today's music," she continues. "I'm talking about feel-good music...good swings and shuffles that make everyone want to tap their feet."

Harms has been making feel-good music now for more than 15 years with a mixture of success. In 1989, 2 of Harms' songs ("I Need a Wife" and "The Only Thing Bluer Than His Eyes") charted. Since then, commercial success has been few and far between. She feels "Let's Put the Western Back in the Country" is her "best album yet" and hopes that this album will get her more exposure and airplay.

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