Monday, May 22, 2017

Jimmy LaFave 1955-2017

Jimmy LaFave
I was deeply saddened today when I received word that Jimmy LaFave passed away peacefully yesterday – May 21 – from spindle cell sarcoma, a cancer of the connective tissues, at the age of 61.

Jimmy was a beloved figure in the folk and roots music community. Respected by his peers and audiences as a major contemporary songwriter, and as a song interpreter with a unique gift of communicating all of the meaning and subtext within a song. Jimmy, perhaps more than anyone I can think of, had a brilliant understanding of where folk music, rock ‘n’ roll, blues, country, jazz and popular song all met seamlessly and authentically. He was a leader and mentor to many in his hometown music community in Austin, Texas and a touring and recording artist who made many friends wherever he went. I know, I was one of them.

I started playing Jimmy’s music on the Folk Roots/Folk Branches radio show in Montreal in 1995 and I’m not sure when I first met him. It was probably at a Folk Alliance conference or festival around that time or, perhaps, when he started coming to Montreal to play club concerts produced by Billy Bob Productions. We bonded quickly over a shared love for the songs of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. Jimmy was one of the greatest interpreters of both Dylan and Guthrie.

Jimmy’s shows in Montreal in the late-1990s and early-2000s were great, whether he was fronting a full rock ‘n’ roll band or a smaller acoustic trio, and I so enjoyed having him as a guest on my radio show in 2000 during one of his trips to Montreal.

Mike Regenstreif, Nora Guthrie, Kris Kristofferson, Jimmy LaFave
Jimmy was at the forefront of “Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway,” a touring ensemble with a rotating cast of artists who did a very special tribute to Woody Guthrie. They brought the show to the Ottawa Folk Festival in 2007 and it was a great honor for me to moderate a panel discussion at the festival on the enduring legacy and influence of Woody Guthrie with Jimmy, fellow artist Kris Kristofferson, and Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and the force of nature behind so many incredible Woody Guthrie projects. It was one of my favorite things I’ve ever done at a folk festival.

Finale of the Woody Guthrie tribute at the Kansas City Folk Festival
The last couple of times I saw Jimmy were at Folk Alliance International conferences in Toronto in 2013 and just three months ago in February in Kansas City. It was always a treat to see him and get caught up.  

I saw Jimmy perform twice in Kansas City. The first was an official showcase of his own music during the conference. Although Jimmy was well into his battle with terminal cancer his performance was fabulous. The next day, at the Kansas City Folk Festival, Jimmy led an absolutely wonderful tribute to Woody Guthrie.
Mike Regenstreif and Jimmy LaFave
When we chatted in Kansas City, he was smiling and looked happy when our photo was taken.

Some of Jimmy’s friends, led by Val Denn, Jimmy’s long-time agent, Eliza Gilkyson and Christine Albert organized a concert – “Jimmy LaFave’s Songwriter Rendezvous” – which took place in Austin last Thursday night. It was Jimmy, himself, who chose the artists and requested the songs they performed. Eliza arranged for the concert to be streamed on Facebook and it was one of the most emotional nights of music I’ve ever witnessed – even though I was watching it from 1900 miles away over the Internet. The concert was a beautiful testimony to what Jimmy meant to so many people.

Christine Albert helps hold the mic for Jimmy LaFave
Jimmy came out on stage – in a wheel chair and connected to an oxygen tank – to lead the final song, “Goodnight Irene,” and address the audience. It had been just three months since I stood at Jimmy’s side and to see the difference in him, wrought by the cancer, was heartbreaking. But to feel the love coming from Jimmy was inspirational. Just three days later he passed away.

Jimmy LaFave will not be forgotten.

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--Mike Regenstreif


  1. thank you Mike - this is heartbreaking news indeed.

  2. Thank you, Mike. Very nicely written. We are all stunned by his sudden passing here in Austin, and the absence we feel cannot be fully expressed. It's comforting to read reactions from around the world, and to know how much he was loved. He set a sterling example for us all.

  3. Just reread this and am still so overcome. Thank you for the respect and love that is so beautifully expressed in this post.