by Michelle Broussard Honick
Joni Harms is as warm as her voice. She’s more likely to hug you than to shake your hand, and her music and the stories she sings will reach inside your heart.
Joni still lives on the Oregon “Century Farm” her great-great-grandfather homesteaded in 1872. Growing up there was more than just a cursory influence on her music, and that influence continues today. She wrote her first song—about a herd of wild mustangs—when she was just seven-years-old, and it was followed quickly by music about her horse and dog, which of course were very important in the life of a
She and her dad (who was in a barbershop quartet) sang together for hours while riding on his tractor, and that inspired the song “Sweet Summer Hay” on her latest album, “Lucky 13.”
The first song Joni sang in public was “I Want to be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart,” taught to her by her mom. She still remembers that when she sang it, “Cowboys gave me quarters that jingled in my pockets, and I liked that!”
She adds, “My mom was the best writer. People even would frame her Christmas letters. My dad could play just about any instrument. He played his first concertina when he entertained the troops in World War II. My brother plays accordion and other instruments, and I play some piano and self-taught guitar.”
Joni’s days playing to larger audiences began when she won the Future Farmers of America (FFA) Talent Contest in Oregon and then the Nationals in Kansas City. “I met three guys with a band, then a steel player joined us, so the five of us played to about 10,000 FFA kids from all over the U.S. and got a standing ovation. My knees were so weak, but I thought then that was what I had to do.
“My daughter Olivia wrote and sang ‘We Are the FFA’ at the Nationals when she was in high school, so she walked right in my footsteps. And I was a proud mama!”
Harms was also a rodeo queen with six different titles, including Miss Northwest and runner-up for Miss Rodeo America. “I represented the rodeos, sang, traveled and rode in the Grand Entry to welcome everyone at many rodeos across America. It’s just about being with people and knowing how to communicate—and singing ‘The National Anthem.’ Many of the people I met during that time are still true-blue friends and fans,” she smiles.
What’s her favorite song in the 13 albums of songs she’s written and recorded?
“Probably it would be ‘Catalog Dreams’ about the Sears & Roebuck catalogs. My dad and his sisters and brother would be so excited every fall when the catalog would come in the mail. They would take turns looking at it and wishing. I wanted a Silvertone guitar because I thought I could write songs on it, be a star and buy everyone their catalog dreams.”
Joni adds, “I love a good beat and great musicians, but a song with great lyrics is what really touches me. Because of that, my favorite song overall would have to be Dolly Parton’s ‘Coat of Many Colors.’ I love the story behind it, and the melody is great. My mom also sewed for us and encouraged us, so it means a lot.”
It no surprise to hear that Joni’s favorite artists are “the traditional country artists. Haggard is up there, and Emmylou Harris, George Strait and Dolly are some of the best.”
Asked about her favorite venues, Joni responds, “I’ve been lucky to play the Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium and Carnegie Hall. But I’m just as happy to play the more intimate venues — as long as there is an audience to listen to my music and my stories, that’s all that matters.
“Olivia and I just got back from a tour of Ireland, Scotland and England, and it was Olivia’s first time in Ireland. The audiences there are great, and they love traditional country and western music. I was invited to perform in Ireland the first time when Tom Sheerin (who produced her latest album “Lucky 13”) emailed me to say his folks were big fans and asked if I could surprise them by playing with his family’s band at his parents’ 50th anniversary party in Ireland while I was on tour in Europe. I fell in love with his family and their talent.”
Joni has had the title “Lucky 13” in her mind for a while. When she recorded her 13th album with 13 songs on it, she knew she had to title it “Lucky 13.” The album title was obviously a good call, because “Lucky 13” came out of the gate and moved right into the reviewers’ winners’ circle.
“I always thought that if I had a thirteenth album out, I’d call it ‘Lucky 13.’ Thirteen is a big number in my family. When my dad came back from France and Germany in World War II, he landed at Dock 13 on 11/13. Olivia was born on June 13th at 13:13 in Room 13—and she graduated high school in 2013.”
“When Olivia was only two days old, she came onstage with me at the Portland Speedway, where I was playing with Clint Black, Ricky Skaggs and some other major artists. The fans loved it that I brought her onstage, and I told my baby she might as well get used to it since music’s what I do and what I love.”
Joni’s early recording career began when famed producer/record company head Jimmy Bowen signed her in the early ‘90s. “That was a dream came true. Byron Gallimore had recorded a demo on me, and MCA flew me to Nashville to meet Jimmy. Two months later, I got a call they would like to sign me.
“The first two singles — ‘I Need A Wife’ and “The Only Thing Bluer Than His Eyes’ — were Top Ten hits, then Bowen took over Capitol Nashville. Those were like my college years because I learned so very much in the studio with Bowen and such a high caliber of musicians and writers.”
Joni is no stranger to winning awards from such organizations as the Western Music Association, but there’s something more important to her. “Awards are great, and I’m proud of them, but hearing someone say my music touched them or helped them through a rough situation is the biggest reward of all. I feel blessed every day that I can do something I love so much.”
In a family where tradition is so strong, it’s very rewarding for Joni to see her children following family traditions. Olivia is seeking a career in music, writing songs and performing, often joining her mother on her concert tour when she’s not doing her own shows. Joni also is very proud of her son Luke for being the sixth-generation rancher on the land that his great-great-great grandfather homesteaded. That “Century Farm” has housed a lot of music and love of the land in the almost 150 years it has been in the family.
If anybody was ever entitled to write stories about the western lifestyle, it is Joni Harms, because she lives it and loves it every day.
(Pictured in top photo, Joni Harms, center, with frequent co-writer Wood Newton, right, and Bobby Marquez at a Writers-In-The-Round at Douglas Corner in Nashville)
Michelle Honick is a Nashville-based journalist who has written for numerous music magazines including “American Songwriter” and “Country News.” She is the co-author of “Ghosts, Gamblers and Gangsters of Las Vegas,” and is in the process of writing her first novel. She lives with her black cat, Brady, and in her spare time loves to read and listen to music, especially The Beatles.