- Hometown hero: Joe Johnson will take a break from touring to perform a free Sept. 29 CD release show at Front Range Barbeque.
Joe Johnson is a great storyteller, which is not an uncommon trait for those who grow up in the Deep South. But while he spent his formative years in Morgantown — a small Mississippi community after which his newly released album is named — Johnson has been a central figure in the Colorado Springs music scene for the past 15 years. He hosted the long-running open mic at Manitou's Ancient Mariner, fronted the band Creating a Newsense, and performs extensively as a solo acoustic artist, as electric guitarist in Grant Sabin & The Juke Joint Highball, and as the rumored frontman of the mysterious Clem Hammond & The B3s.
The new album, which is Johnson's third, was co-produced by Ian Bourgal and features numerous past and present collaborators, including Sabin, Jason Gilmore, Josh DeSmidt, Jacob Klock, Sean and Aaron Fanning, Bryant Jones, Jason Miller and, of course, Clem himself. From the graveyard-shift poignancy of "Down at the Factory" to an easygoing ode to his faithful dogs Cletus and Willie Nelson, the 11-song collection reaffirms Johnson's heartfelt love and talent for down-home blues, folk and country music.
In anticipation of his forthcoming CD release show, we caught up with the singer-songwriter to talk about recording Morgantown, taking the stage at the Ryman Auditorium, and the true story of his grandfather B.J. The DJ.
The album you recorded last year with Grant Sabin was mostly first takes. It sounds like you took a very different approach to your new album. Would you say that you and Ian Bourgal were a bit more meticulous with this one?
Well, you know, probably not enough for Ian. [Laughs.] In all seriousness, though, Ian is a next-level recording genius type guy. I mean he researches down to how far the mic was from the amp on "Hard Day's Night." When he wants to get a sound, he goes very deep into the process of the people that he's using as a template, or the recording he's using as a template. So yes, he was very meticulous. As far as me, no, not really.
So you're not very meticulous?
Not necessarily. But, you know, there was a lot of thought put into it, by both myself and Ian, when it came to orchestrating the album properly, making sure that if this song needs piano, then it's going to have piano. If this song needs mouth harp, it's going to have mouth harp. And if this song needs a really great slide part for two measures, we need to call Grant Sabin. So we took a lot of time and had a lot of discussions about how we wanted everything to sound and feel, and I think for both of us — I know for me — it's as much about how it feels as anything. A lot of songwriters will record a collection of songs and then just put them out in any old order, with the best song first or whatever. Whereas I like to take these collections of songs that don't necessarily all mean the same thing and make something meaningful out of it, something that kind of takes you on a listening journey of some sort. I think we did pretty good doing that on this album.
You did. Although I have to say that when that electric guitar comes out of nowhere on "Snakeskin Dress," I thought I'd somehow opened another sound file. How did that arrangement come about?
Well, I guess part of it was that I'd spent a lot of time playing with Grant over the last couple of years in the Juke Joint Highball, where I've really been exploring more work on the electric guitar. And so it was just the way I always heard that song in my head, that sort of driving, almost hill-country blues-rock sound, which never comes across when I'm sitting there with an acoustic guitar. But one thing that we both kind of insisted on was the foot-tap at the beginning. Because anyone who's ever seen me play by myself knows that my feet are part of the band, and so the left foot lays the rhythm down through the whole show. And Ian wanted to make sure we captured that. So it was kind of a compromise, maybe, to start it with the foot taps and the acoustic. But I just love the way the electric guitar comes in and kind of surprises you. And I was able to get Kenny Brown in on that tune as well, which was pretty amazing.
Who is he and where did he come from?
He used to play with R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. He lives in the backwoods of Mississippi. He and I got to be friends last year, and I helped him out with some shows out here. So he was staying with me, and I just mentioned it to him one day — "I got a great song that you could play slide on if you'd be game" — and he surprised me with a yes. You know, his only album credits, besides his own music, are Junior and R.L. and Cyndi Lauper.
No kidding. Cyndi Lauper made a blues album a couple of years ago and yeah, they hired Kenny to play on it. I haven't heard it.
I understand that your father's a gospel singer and that your grandfather was a country artist and radio personality who went by the name of "B.J. the DJ." That's also the name of a Stonewall Jackson song about a young deejay dying in a car crash, which kind of fit into that whole '60s youth-tragedy genre. Was that song actually about your grandfather?
Oh yeah, the character in the song is based on my grandpa, yeah.
But your grandfather didn't actually die in a car crash, did he?
No, my grandpa lived to a fairly old age. But the song was kind of modeled after him, because he used to work at the AM station in Picayune, Mississippi, which is where I was born. And he was known for leaving the house five minutes before he had to be on the air and just hauling ass as fast as he could around these country roads. So yeah, that's who the song is based on.
I don't know about you, but I would not want a song written about me in which I die.
Not before I die, no.
So what did your grandma think when that song comes out?
Well, actually I don't know. My grandpa was what we would call in the South a rounder; he got around. So by the time I was born, they had been divorced, and he had re-married, and then divorced again. So honestly, she never really talked a lot about his music, other than to say that he had a beautiful voice. And I don't remember ever hearing her say anything about the Stonewall Jackson song really, but I remember that both my aunts would talk about it a lot. It's a source of pride for the family, I guess you'd say.
Your grandfather and Stonewall Jackson actually used to play the Grand Ole Opry, right?
Yep. It was still at the Ryman Auditorium when they used to play there.
Are you going to play there ever?
I did actually play a song onstage at the Ryman one time.
It's a real pretty good story. Conor Bourgal and I were on tour several years ago, and we played a show in East Nashville. We had a day off, so we just decided to go up to Nashville and check it out, you know? So we got our hotel for the night, went downstairs, and I just played on the street all night, while Conor walked around looking for the cool folks, you know, trying to find Jack White or something. [Laughs.] So I was playing with these street musicians and having a pretty good time and might have got a little drunk. And then after that, I remember we were trying to get back to the hotel and we walked right by the Ryman. So I sat down on the back steps of the Ryman, pretty drunkenly, and played some Hank Williams songs, you know, for the spirits. And then the next day, we'd come back down to town, Conor said, "You know, we should just go tour that thing," and I'm like, "Man I don't want to spend money to tour the Ryman." He says, "No, we got to go tour it, here we are, when the hell else are we going to go do this?" So I caved. So we went in and Conor is trying to smooth-talk us into the place for free, you know, and telling them we're musicians and stuff.
Yeah, that'll work.
Yeah, it wasn't working at all. But there was this old lady that was in the ticket booth, and I mentioned my grandpa, and she perked up and she said, "Oh I remember your grandpa B.J." So she let the two of us in for free, and we were just kind of walking around, checked the whole thing out. They had a little recording booth where you could sing over a Patsy Cline song or whatever. So I went in there with my guitar and recorded one of my grandpa's songs called "Warriors Mine." And when we were done with that, I'm talking to the engineer, and I said, "Man, I'd love to play on that stage someday." And he says, "How about right now?'" So I went up there and played one of my songs, and there was like 25 or 30 people waiting on a tour, and four or five other guys fixing some steps, and I started singing and everybody stopped talking and listened. And when I finished the song, everybody claps and cheers, and I'm like, "Oh shit, I just played the Ryman for 25 people." [Laughs.] So yeah, that did happen.
So are you ever going to release that recording of your grandfather's song?
Well, Conor and I talked about maybe putting it out, but the sound quality was not terribly good. The guy's whole job is to sit there and tell tourists who sing off-key what a great job they did. Who knows, maybe I'll put it out for free someday. I do play it sometimes live with my band, or even on my own. It's one of the tunes of his I play live.
You've covered songs like Don Edwards' "Coyotes" in the past. Are any of the tracks on this album covers that I've just never heard before?
No, they're all originals. I've definitely been guilty of lifting a melody here or there, but that's folk music for you, so what are you going to do? But no, it's definitely all stuff I wrote, most of it over the last two years of travel. And that was kind of a common theme for me with the whole album. It was to get a down-home feel on songs that are about home — whether it's Morgantown or Manitou Springs or the highway — songs about being home, or wishing I was, one or the other.