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Arts & Culture

Austin Singer-Songwiter Jimmy LaFave, A Local Favorite, Dies

Jimmy LaFave speaks at a SXSW Music panel in 2012, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie.
Jimmy LaFave speaks at a SXSW Music panel in 2012, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie.

Austin singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave died Sunday, just days after joining many stars of the city's folk music community to celebrate his life. He was 61.

LaFave was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer last year. A note posted on Facebook by his label, Music Roads Records, said he died at his home surrounded by loved ones.

According to the posting:

At the time of his death, Jimmy had recorded numerous new songs at his studio in South Austin and had also begun work on a book featuring a collection of his photography.

"No one had a voice like he did," KUTX's Jody Denberg tells KUT's Nathan Bernier. "He was [also] a great song interpreter, maybe one of the best Dylan interpreters ever."

Despite his diagnosis and declining condition, LaFave continued to perform. In April, he played a 90-minute set at a fundraiser for a San Antonio food bank, with a set list blending originals and his signature takes on Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie tunes. He performed again last month at Threadgill’s.

Though born in Wills Point, Texas, LaFave was raised near Stillwater, Okla., where he developed his signature Red Dirt music style. He was considered the first to bring that style to Austin and stake its place. Last month,  Oklahoma presented LaFave with the inaugural Restless Spirit Award given by the state’s Red Dirt Relief Fund, a charity that raises money for Oklahoma musicians. LaFave will be inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in June.

After moving to Austin in the '80s, LaFave became a mainstay in the folk and Americana communities, but he had been a bridge between different generations of musicians, many of whom performed last Thursday at Jimmy LaFave’s Songwriter Rendezvous. The sold-out event, hosted by Denberg, featured Christine Albert, Marcia Ball, Ruthie Foster, Butch Hancock, Eliza Gilkyson and Sam Baker, among many others.

The artists either performed LaFave songs or songs he had requested. Denberg tells Bernier that when the idea to honor him was conceived, organizers didn't know whether he'd live to see it. But on the night of the show, he arrived in a wheelchair and was seated in the box seats. When the audience learned he was there, Denberg says, they went "berserk."

At the end of the night, LaFave was wheeled on stage and handed a guitar. Supported by oxygen, he sang the finale, "Goodnight Irene."

"And time stood still. I've never witnessed anything like that," Denberg says. "We all have to go sometime, and if you want to go with 1,300 people adoring you, while you sing a song for them, that’s not a bad way to exit." 

KUTX's Taylor Wallace contributed to this report. 

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