Music News & Reviews

Drug court participant earns way back to Renfro Valley

BEATTYVILLE — He first heard Tasha Harris sing sometime in 1992, when she was 17 and had everything that talent ever promises anyone with those looks and a modicum of gumption.

He was a defense lawyer, and he seemed to think he remembered her from their shared hometown. He went backstage, said hello, wished her continued good luck.

“Oh my gosh, she's really good,” he remembers thinking. So good that she was going to leave that town and Renfro Valley, where he was watching her perform, in the faraway dust. See. Ya. Later.

In January 2007, newly elected Circuit Judge Tom Jones, sitting in Lee County, saw her again. This time, she stood alone in front of him, a participant in drug court, an intensive effort on the part of the Kentucky judicial system to help offenders deal with their addictions and circumvent extensive time in jail.

He was astonished to find her there.

As part of the program, she had to appear frequently in front of Jones. So early on, Jones decided to ask Harris if she'd like to sing again at Renfro Valley. She had, after all, been a regular at the venue's world-famous Barn Dance for almost 14 years.

Harris told Jones she would like to, although she wasn't sure about the reception she'd get there.

OK, Jones said, but, again, would she like to sing again at Renfro Valley?

Yes, came the reply.

If she would stay clean, Jones said, he would see what he could do.

Saturday night, 19 months after Jones first imagined that the big stage might motivate the songbird to return to the stage to sing, she returns.

Not for good, mind you, because that is not how the invitation is phrased. There have been too many bridges burned there for it to be more than a single one-, two-song engagement.

Drugs are like that. They burn bridges you don't even know you've put a match to.

But the return to the stage, if only for two songs, is designed to be a simple push to get Harris to finish the drug-court program. So she can see the audience, sing with a live band and get a glimpse of what her future might allow.

If she would only try.

It came too easily

She doesn't remember ever having to audition. She had a solo spot with the Appalachian Troubadours at Renfro Valley when she was 14, and that was after she'd won talent shows, sung at the state fair and throughout Eastern Kentucky whenever somebody had said they'd heard of this terrific teenager with the amazing alto voice.

Ralph Gabbard, the president and general manager of the company that owned WKYT and WYMT before becoming a TV broadcast industry leader, was her early champion, got her jobs before Rupp Arena and Freedom Hall audiences, even giving her a one-hour country music special during the Christmas season on Channel 27 when she was just 18.

“It was in the TV Guide,” she says.

It was 1993, and the world looked great. Gabbard and some Nashville types were reported in the Herald-Leader to be “trying to map out a strategy for her career.”

She went to college, but her heart wasn't in it. Why should it be? She was supposed to be in Nashville soon. Dolly Parton had, after all, once called to ask Gabbard about booking Harris to open some shows for her.

“I thought it would come together for me. I thought it would just come and fall into my lap. I never sat down and did a plan.”

But Gabbard died unexpectedly in 1996, when he was 50. She was only 21.

She tells you she almost got that record deal. A lot of non-specifics follow. She was in Nashville in a record company office once, was just sure this was going to be her life. Her picture on those walls, her music in those elevators. Name of the building is a little vague. Did have her name mentioned in a Billboard magazine column. “We think we've spotted a star in Tasha Harris,” it read. Two more times she was mentioned, she says, in that same column. Then not again.

Tasha Harris was still without a plan at 27. She also was the mother of a 3-year-old girl.

“I had money and I was bored and I was here.” She is talking about Beattyville.

“It was wintertime, too. If it had been summer, I would have hit the countryside, rolled down the windows, driven the gorge. A friend said, ‘I know what we can do.'”

They could do Oxycontin.

In January 2005, she bought some pills as an undercover officer looked on. In July 2006, she pleaded guilty to first-degree trafficking in a controlled substance. She was sent to drug court, where, in January 2007, she stood in front of Jones.

A creative solution

Being a circuit court judge in Eastern Kentucky is sometimes an exercise in “creative jurisprudence,” says Judge Jeff Burdette, a long-time friend of Jones. The two went to law school together, attend judicial conferences together, and on this occasion, worked together to find a way to help Harris.

Jones knew that Burdette grew up within a mile of Renfro Valley. So, last spring, he called Burdette and asked whether he knew anybody who worked there. Turns out Burdette went to elementary school with the chief executive officer, Connie Hunt.

Hunt knew Harris, of course, and, while expressing concern for Harris' health and well-being, she explained that the venue had had to practice “some tough love” with Harris when her drug abuse had become obvious.

That was in 2005, when Pete Stamper, who was then Renfro Valley's entertainment director, was asked to explain to Harris that she was “to take some time to get her life together,” Hunt said.

She was, in effect, fired.

But that didn't mean the venue wasn't willing to participate in her recovery efforts. It was more than willing.

“We love her,” Hunt says. “She was a part of our family for a long time. We want her to do well.”

Hoping for the best

Jones already has sent two people under his supervision in drug court to prison. One for five years, one for six.

The idea is that this program of rewards and punishments is real. When Harris failed the drug test three times (she had been drinking), her 18-month drug court sentence was extended each time by three months.

It is Thursday, a week before her performance. Jones is asking whether Harris has reliable transportation. A cell phone? Does she know what songs she wants to sing? He, the commonwealth's attorney and her defense attorney all offer suggestions.

She mentions a song title. They seem unsure of how it goes. She starts right in, singing.

The courtroom stills, for seconds, with nothing but the purity of her perfect voice.

“You give your hand to me

And then you say hello

And I can hardly speak

My heart is beating so …”

She sings the words to the Eddy Arnold (and later Ray Charles) standard You Don't Know Me.

It is clear that everyone here is on her side, willing her to do well.

If you ask Jones why he has gone so out of his way to help her, he responds simply: “I've had to put so many people in jail, it's just nice to be able to do something other than that.”

He is well aware that Harris is months away from graduating from drug court. But, using the judgment he was elected to dispense, he must decide when the push should come. (He once mandated that Harris watch the movie Cinderella Man, the story of a fighter who had no chance to succeed but kept fighting and did.)

“Maybe nothing will come of” the performance, he says, “but we don't know that. We do know that nothing will happen if she doesn't go. Going can only help her, so why not try.”

Motivation comes in all manner of disguises. So Saturday night, in addition to the mandate that Harris sing, it is a requirement for the rest of Jones' drug court participants to make the trip to Renfro Valley to watch.

Her only plan: sing

Harris contends that she smoked pot daily since she was a young teenager. So it's not surprising, she says now, that nine out of 10 times that she ever performed, she was high.

Where does that put the rest of her sober life, she wonders, still surprised to find herself at 33 considered a drug addict, an alcoholic, a woman whose economic worth amounts to sewing pockets on firefighters' uniforms in a factory that makes her sneeze.

“I came back here and everybody's like, ‘What happened to you?,'” Harris says. “I was supposed to be the one to put Beattyville on the map. It makes you feel bad, even worse than you already do.”

She is alternately self-aware and then vaguely unaware of her own failure.

It is worrisome to Jones, but he has seen drug court work in much less promising circumstances, so he chooses to believe.

Harris still has no plan unless you count the one in which she wants to go on Nashville Star and do the thing that has never, ever failed her.