Payson is losing someone very valuable this month. "Shakey" Joe Harless has been the bedrock of a small, but thriving, musical community in Rim country.
The gregarious man with the trademark Hawaiian shirt and harmonica, made it his mission to open a door to a vast expanse of music and culture -- just for our little, mountain community.
For 10 years, he recruited talent from all over the nation to come to Payson on a sunny, summer weekend to entertain us, teach us, inspire us. The June Bug Blues Festival was one of Payson's last remaining festivals in what was once considered the Festival Capital of Arizona.
Opposition to the festival year after year took its toll, and it is Payson's loss.
Songwriter's Cafe, another mainstay of Friday nights in Payson, was far more to many than a jam session. It was a gathering place for people who appreciate music. It was a place for isolated and disenfranchised people to find unconditional acceptance and encouragement -- and warm welcome from Joe.
At Songwriter's Cafe, it didn't matter who you were, how you were dressed -- it didn't matter whether you were an accomplished musician or a beginner. It was a safe place to get up on stage and perform -- if you had the dream.
There are many stories of people whose lives were changed by making a single decision to go to Songwriter's Cafe:
- A woman, fresh out of a 20-year abusive relationship who becomes reacquainted with a society she's been isolated from, and an instrument she once played before her imprisonment.
- A homeless man who gets back on his feet when he discovers he can make a living off his musical talent.
At Songwriter's Cafe, you could see another side to the Federal Express delivery guy, or the owner of a local office supply store, the carpenter, the computer repairman, the nurse -- people you walk by every day and have no idea that they are talented musicians.
Joe's commitment to bringing musical and cultural diversity to Payson paved the way for local artists and the young people who have gone on to play blues, jazz and other forms of music.
The musical community will survive Joe's departure, but he can never be replaced. When June rolls around with no June Bug Blues Festival, reality will set in and this town will feel an acute sense of loss.
Just as Joni Mitchell sang, "Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'till it's gone.'
Thanks, Joe, for all that you've given to this community.
You will be missed.