Jimmy LaFave, beloved Austin singer-songwriter, facing terminal cancer

[This article has been updated.]

Friends and fellow musicians are planning a May 18 concert at the Paramount Theatre to honor longtime Austin singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave, who was diagnosed with an aggressive and incurable form of cancer last year.

Jimmy LaFave, Austin singer-songwriter. Laura Skelding/AMERICAN-STATESMAN 2012

LaFave, who moved to Austin from Oklahoma in the mid-1980s and became one of the city’s foremost Americana artists over the next couple of decades, had kept details of his condition under wraps since last summer. He’s scheduled to play on Friday at Threadgill’s South, a show that friends said he’d hoped would happen before there was public knowledge of his condition.

That plan went awry when a report about it was published late Wednesday night by the Austin Chronicle, in advance of what had been requested, according to several friends of LaFave. (A statement from the Chronicle has been added at the end of this piece, alleging that the timing had been left “expressly to our discretion.”)

“He’s such a private guy,” fellow Austin singer-songwriter Jaimee Harris said on Thursday morning. “He hadn’t asked for anything this whole time except for people to hold off.”

The May 18 Paramount show will be titled Jimmy LaFave’s Songwriter Rendezvous, according to his longtime friend Christine Albert, who spoke by phone from Los Angeles on Thursday morning. Albert, who plays every Monday at El Mercado Backstage with a band that includes LaFave’s drummer Bobby Kallus, added that “there are things in the works that will be an opportunity for fans to express their support and love for Jimmy.” (Update: A “Celebrating Jimmy LaFave” crowdfunding page was established Thursday night.)

Performing two weeks ago to kick off a seasonal outdoor music series at County Line BBQ in San Antonio, LaFave performed sitting down, but his voice remained strong on a 90-minute set that mixed original tunes with his trademark covers of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie songs, as well as old favorites from the likes of Procol Harum and John Waite.

Dylan songs are among a wealth of material LaFave has been recording recently at Cedar Creek Studios in South Austin, Harris confirmed Thursday. “I kind of oddly discovered Dylan backwards through Jimmy, because I’d heard his versions of Dylan’s songs,” she recalled.

“Jimmy was one of the reasons I moved here,” continued Harris, who came to Austin from Waco and grew up listening to LaFave’s music. She says she used to drive down from Waco to hear him play free summer shows at Shady Grove, then got to know him after being asked to sing on his 2015 album “The Night Tribe.”

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Harris cited his encouragement to other Austin artists such as Ruthie Foster, Betty Soo and Grace Pettis as central to his value to the local music community. “He’s like a bridge for a lot of people,” she said, explaining that he helped connect younger-generation artists to the city’s veteran songwriters and musicians.

Albert, who founded the nonprofit Swan Songs to arrange concerts for people in end-of-life care, recalled a show LaFave played for the organization around the time he underwent surgery to remove a tumor from his chest.

“Last summer, when Jimmy first told me about this, the next day we got a Swan Songs request for Jimmy’s music,” she said. “I told him, ‘Please don’t do this if its too difficult for you.’ And he said, ‘No, I want do do this.’ He did the show in July, and by then he knew that it wasn’t benign.”

More information will be announced on LaFave’s Facebook page later today, fellow songwriter Eliza Gilkyson said Thursday. They will include details about a crowdfunding page that will raise money for charities LaFave has selected, but not for his own care. Albert said that LaFave also has been directly involved in setting up the artists for the May 18 Songwriter Rendezvous show.

“At one point I said, I don’t think we should do this; it’s too soon,” Albert said of the Paramount concert. “But Jimmy was really adamant. He said, ‘It’s the only thing I have to look forward to right now.'”

Update: Austin Chronicle music editor Raoul Hernandez posted the following to the newspaper’s Facebook page on Thursday afternoon: “The Chronicle spoke to exactly three people in reporting ‘Dead Man Walking: Jimmy Lafave’ – Jimmy LaFave, his ex-wife and partner in parenthood Barbara Fox, and Dave Marsh. The latter two contacted the paper. No other party reached out to us. All three sources mentioned the tribute concert, none used the word ’embargo,’ and both LaFave and Fox left the timing of the paper’s reporting expressly to our discretion.”


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