Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Jaimee Harris is a singer and songwriter from Texas. Her forthcoming album, “Boomerang Town,” will be released in February. “Missing Someone,” its first single, came out last month and is available for streaming. 

Enjoy our conversation about delight and emptiness at the Waco Chili’s, ‘boomeranging’ home, and bringing music into carceral spaces, below.

YouTube video
The music video for “Missing Someone” (via Jaimee Harris on YouTube).

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: I want to start by talking about the title of your upcoming record, “Boomerang Town” – I actually have a playlist of, like, borderline-folk songs that follow that title format: “[Insert Adjective] Town,” like “Devil Town” by Daniel Johnston or “Heartbreak Town” by the Chicks. So I’m just curious what the descriptor there, “boomerang,” means to you.

Jaimee Harris: Yeah, I can’t remember when that phrase first popped up in my brain but I remember vaguely being at a party in Austin – where I moved when I was 19 – I was at this party sometime in my early 20s and trying to describe the city where I grew up to someone, which is a small town outside of Waco. The only way I could think to describe it is that it’s like a “boomerang town” because it feels like a lot of folks that try to leave end up back there. So that’s where the title track came from. And then it seemed like that was really the theme of the record, because I was exploring the imprint that the town itself left on me, and the imprint that my family left on me.

In a way, too, I was in my own boomerang cycle, heading back in that direction while I was reflecting on my upbringing and early adulthood during the pandemic. So even though I physically wasn’t in my hometown, I was physically able to escape, [and] these songs have brought me back there emotionally.

DY: I think that’s a really familiar feeling for a lot of people from small towns. I’m curious, though, about the word “escape” that you just used. That’s kind of stark language, and it makes me wonder how you think about your relationship to your hometown now.

JH: It’s definitely complicated. In some ways it was a really fantastic place to grow up. Both sets of my grandparents were there. My parents got together in high school and are still together, so I had a very secure home in that way. My hometown is just small enough that I had to learn how to be imaginative and create my own fun. But I also had this desire to experience a world that was different from my hometown, which is pretty homogenous. Like for example, there were barely any local restaurants to go to when I was a kid, or even in high school. So when the chain restaurant Cheddar’s moved into Waco, they named a street after it. If you had a birthday party you went to Chili’s, and I would still put down some Southwestern egg rolls to this day, no doubt, but I felt like something was missing.

There was something underneath the town that I felt like I had to get away from. I had a physical knowing before I was able to articulate it. In some ways, even though I’ve gone through the process of writing these songs, I still feel like I’m not on the other side of processing it all. Ultimately, I felt like there wasn’t a whole lot of pride in my hometown. It could’ve been there – I might just not have had access to it. I didn’t see it. I felt like I was living in a big strip mall. When I moved to Austin, I was really excited to live there because other people were excited to live there. Young people were excited to live there.

DY: That’s interesting. I wonder if you have any reflections on the sort of Chip-and-Joanna-fication of Waco throughout your adult life?

JH: It’s funny, I do. As a kid – and I think it’s a very normal experience for someone that grows up in a semi-small town – I really wanted it to change, to kind of catch up with where I was in my adolescence. You’re like, “Come on, can’t we get an independent record store? Can’t we get an NPR station or something here?” So I always wanted this place to change and then Chip and Joanna come in and really do change the town. And then of course I had this very human response which was like, “I can’t believe they changed it!” even though it’s kind of like I asked for it.

But a few years ago, my partner Mary Gauthier and I stayed at a hotel in Waco while we were visiting my family for Christmas, and it was right next door to The Silos. It was freaky to me because my grandmother was a deacon at the First Baptist Church of Waco, which is pretty much right next door. So every Sunday as a child, I would go to the Baptist Church and look at those silos. They’re very much imprinted in my brain from my childhood. What I had imagined I would find went along with certain things I’d heard about Chip and Joanna indirectly. I had a serious bias. But our experience of walking through what they’ve created blew my mind.

They have a bakery that has absolutely delicious cupcakes and everyone that worked there seemed extremely happy. I travel all over the world and The Silos had one of the most diverse workforces I’ve ever seen. All kinds of genders, colors, sexual orientations. It was incredible. Of course, they’ve got their crazy huge home goods section. But in between the cupcakes and the home goods, they have a beautiful little green space where families gather to eat and play cornhole and just hang out. One thing that really stuck out to me was their juice trailer. It was encouraging to me because I feel like I didn’t have a whole lot of access to really healthy food growing up in Waco (In Waco’s defense, it was the ’90s, when you could advertise anything to children and we still had Fruitopia vending machines). We walked up and saw that all of the employees of this juice and smoothie truck are women who have recently been released from the criminal justice system, who are in substance use recovery.

I had negative preconceived notions about Chip and Joanna. In my mind, they were mostly a section of home goods I had to walk through to get from one side of Target to the other. Just faces on magazines and on Discovery+ commercials. They’re these folks I’ve never met but am often asked about when I tell people I’m from Waco. But actually going there, to the space they’ve created, really encouraged me. I feel like they’re meeting Waco’s needs, filling holes that need to be filled, and nourishing the community.

DY: That sounds a lot more complicated than living in a shopping mall because so often malls have actually replaced public space. It’s really interesting that you got such a communal feeling there and I feel like it mirrors something I’ve read you talking about in another interview, just about a lack of nuance when it comes to the way we talk about small Christian communities. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about your experience in your grandmother’s church in Waco and how you’ve grown to think about it as an adult.

JH: My grandmother and my grandfather are two of the biggest heroes in my life. I absolutely love them, and when I was a child – because my parents had me when they were 20 – I spent quite a bit of time with them. And I really enjoyed growing up in that church, where I went until I was about 10 years old. That’s where I learned how to sing. My grandmother was an alto and I also have kind of a low range so I loved finding harmonies and singing the hymns. She put me into children’s programs there and I was in every musical that I could be in when I was a kid, so it was another avenue for me to explore music. I had a really positive experience in that way, and a lot of things that I was taught there really made sense to me: treat people with kindness, if you see someone in need, help them. Those were the messages that I took with me as a child. As I got older, I ended up going to a little bit more of a modern church. In the town that I grew up in, being cool was about being really involved in the church, so eventually I found myself being there like six days a week, which really wore me out. 

By the time that I graduated from high school and I was living on my own, I felt like I needed to take a break purely from an exhaustion standpoint. That break turned into me not really going back. Some of that had to do with how, when I was in college, the brief moment I was in college, I was in relationships with women, and that would get posted about on Facebook, or I would have something positive happen with my music and I would post that on Facebook. It started to turn for me when people that I spent six days a week with in this church would comment on things and say “Don’t forget to give the glory to God,” or they would express concern about the relationship I was in with another woman. That was hard because I was like, “Wow, I thought these people really cared about me.” I felt like if they really cared about me, they would send me a message, they would call me – my phone number hasn’t changed. But it looked more like a show to me, which really made me question the community that I had been involved in. I’ve never really dealt with those feelings. I just said, “Well, I guess I just don’t belong to that community anymore because I’m queer.”

I took it very personally and didn’t apply any grace to them. But then, in 2016 when Trump was elected, I experienced being in a very liberal community in Austin and hearing people who of course didn’t know me as a churchgoer – because I wasn’t at that time – make these really blanket statements about Christians. I had an equally confusing internal reaction like, “Oh no, am I a Christian?” That’s what started opening this wound inside of me that I realized I needed to heal. The stereotypes being used by both sides just didn’t feel true to me. And I only knew how to heal those wounds in song.

DY: Right, so sort of a less cynical vision of where Christians are coming from. I also read online that you were interested in playing music for people who were incarcerated, and I wanted to hear more about how that intersects with your experiences in recovery from addiction.

JH: One of the reasons I’m passionate about that is because I feel like people that haven’t had experience in the criminal justice system – whether it’s personal experience or experience with a family member – have this belief that you do what they tell you to do and then you’re released from the system. They think it’s easy, you just follow the rules. Well, I’m someone with quite a bit of privilege and there were still many ways in which I almost got completely consumed by it. I could see how one missed payment, or one misfortune could have put me back in jail.

a woman leans on tattoo covered arms and looks upward against a black studio backdrop
Jaimee Harris (Photo by Barbara FG, via IVPR).

JH: One of the reasons I’m passionate about that is because I feel like people that haven’t had experience in the criminal justice system – whether it’s personal experience or experience with a family member – have this belief that you do what they tell you to do and then you’re released from the system. They think it’s easy, you just follow the rules. Well, I’m someone with quite a bit of privilege and there were still many ways in which I almost got completely consumed by it. I could see how one missed payment, or one misfortune could have put me back in jail.

My experience was that I got in trouble twice for drunk driving and the second time I decided, “Okay, clearly this is the sign I have to get sober.” So my county wanted me to go to outpatient rehab to fulfill my obligation for restitution. This was before I had even been convicted, I had just been charged. I’d been going to twelve step recovery meetings and been sober 60 days when I went for an outpatient rehab intake. The very first question the guy asked me when I did my intake was, “How many days have you been sober? And I said, “Well, today is actually day 60.” He congratulated me and then went through the intake. Before he even put his pen down he said, “Just so you know, since you’ve been 60 days sober, that’s going to be too sober for your insurance to cover it. So it’s going to be $800 a month for the program and you’re going to owe me $150 for the assessment today.” And for me, newly sober with my life a wreck, $150 seemed like a million dollars. $800 was unfathomable. So at 75 days sober I went back to the county and I said, “Hey, I can’t afford $800 a month and my insurance says that I’m too sober for them to cover rehab. What should I do?” They literally suggested I start drinking again to reset my sobriety date so that my insurance would cover it and I could fulfill the obligation.

DY: That might be the most perverse set of incentives I’ve ever heard about in my life.

JH: Isn’t that crazy? I knew that if I was to drink again, I was likely to die. I had never been sober that long before. Luckily I ended up in a situation where I didn’t have to do that, because I had someone to write a letter for me, but I know that wouldn’t have been an option for most people. So I particularly have a soft spot for people who are in the criminal justice system due to addiction. We know now that the root of almost all addiction can be traced back to trauma. Through the work that I’ve done, and just by sharing my story, every once in a while someone will come up to me and ask me to play at a treatment center or a criminal justice institution. One of the most powerful experiences of my life was playing for the women incarcerated in Gatesville, TX which is about 30 minutes outside of where I grew up. I’ve also connected with an incredible organization in Tulsa called Women in Recovery, which is an alternative to prison for women who have been convicted of drug and alcohol related offenses. It is a lifelong program that starts with community housing and wraparound social services. When I become aware of service opportunities like that I like to engage with them.

DY: I think we should wrap up with one final question – what have you been reading or listening to lately that’s been inspiring to you?

JH: I just read this book that is blowing my mind. It’s called “It Came from the Closet,” and it’s a collection of 25 essays by queer and trans authors about their connections with different horror movies. It’s some of the most interesting writing I’ve read in a long time. I’m also a huge horror fan, so I absolutely love it. Sometimes the writer identifies with the monster, sometimes they identify with the “final girl.” The connections these writers make are fantastic.

Steve Earle came out with a record in March of 2020, so almost nobody heard it, called “Ghosts of West Virginia.” He spent many years interviewing people in a small town in West Virginia where a mine collapsed. He’s written songs from the perspective of those people and about that incident. It’s a small town where almost everybody lost a relative in the tragedy. I think it’s an absolutely astonishing record. It’s one of the coolest folk records I’ve heard in a while. I’m also hooked on Anna Tivel’s new record “Outsiders.” Her writing, really her everything, blows my mind.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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