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The Johnson Family Band gets ready to practice that old-time derision



Like any good guitarist, Peter Hoffman, singer-songwriter and lead guitar strummer for Minnesota/North Dakota's Johnson Family Band, started off doing it for the chicks.

"I was working as a conservationist out in the back country of New Mexico, where there was a scene of people who didn't have electricity and were playing banjos and fiddles to entertain themselves at night," Hoffman explains. "There were very few women, and the only guys who were getting dates were the bluegrass musicians. I learned really quickly that if I wanted a date in New Mexico, I had to learn bluegrass."

Hoffman's band formed when he met up with dobro player Tom Johnson at Minnesota State University-Moorhead. Johnson comes from a long line of South Dakota musicians and music educators that includes his great-grandfather, a jazz pianist in the South Dakota Hall of Fame. The two began assembling a band of pickers for their modern adaptation of the family-style bluegrass band.

"Our name came from our close associations with Tom's family and their musical history," Hoffman says, "along with an homage to the fact that when bluegrass was forming, it was music played by a family that would get out instruments at night and play and entertain themselves."

The Johnson Family Band recorded its first collection of bluegrass ballads and hollers, Old Ruby, in 2007, back during what Hoffman remembers as one of the happier periods in his life. But these days, his songs express more distrust and resentment toward the same female population he tried to enchant with his guitar playing years earlier. The band's upcoming effort, Snake Oil Woman, directly reflects the songwriter's current female troubles.

"I started writing darker songs when I got dumped," admits Hoffman. "The new songs are a little grittier, more self-deprecating. It's a louder record [and] a little bit faster."

The title, he explains, is rooted in the old-time archetype of the deceptive snake oil salesman who would make a traveling show of peddling his baldness and cancer-curing elixirs. The cover shows a wife embracing her husband as she simultaneously picks his pocket.

"The album deals with the deception of womanhood," Hoffman says with a laugh. "No, it mostly just deals with the differences between the genders."

The Johnson Family Band's sound fits into the ongoing resurgence of bluegrass, roots and old-time folk music that's led by bands like Old Crow Medicine Show, the Avett Brothers, and Mumford and Sons. For Hoffman, this renaissance of the roots style is part of a natural musical cycle.

"Music is cyclical, there's always things that are coming and going," Hoffman suggests. "There's just a handful of bands that are really doing it better than it's been done in a while. Having acts that are available to a mass audience are opening peoples eyes to it."

And even though Hoffman's current subject matter is about breaking up, Johnson Family Band's live shows are still all about keeping the family together.

"There's times when I can look out in the crowd and I can see three generations of people dancing. You'll see a child with her parents and grandparents, and they're all dancing."

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