If the truth be told, and I insist that it should be, I first discovered Justin Johnson through my Facebook feed. One of my friends posted a video from YouTube of Johnson playing a song on a three-string shovel.
Yes, you read that right, he was playing a shovel. Much like a cigarbox slide, he rocked that sucker like nobody’s business. While my friend used it as an opportunity to toss out some bad puns, I was completely blown away and went directly to YouTube to find more videos and then to his website to find out everything I could about him.
He’s an amazing player based out of Music City, Nashville, TN, and a wonderful breath of fresh air to listen to. Yes, he has a ton of guitar pyrotechnics going on, but he has such a deep soul in his playing that he doesn’t have to use them all the time. How many shredding guitarists do we hear that masquerade flash for substance?
Johnson has the substance. He’s the real deal, and if he wasn’t working in the relatively small arena of blues, roots, and Americana, he would probably be a household name.
Johnson plays all sorts of guitars; six-string, 12-string, shovel, bass on one song and even a sitar guitar. I admit I had to look up that one. I know sitars and I know guitars, but I didn’t know they had ever been combined. These are just what he plays on Drivin’ It Down, his most recent independent release.
Drivin’ It Down is a double album, 16 tracks of guitar brilliance. Most of the songs are instrumentals written by Johnson. He does use a few vocalists on some of the songs including Bill Miller, John Carter Cash, Ana Cristina Cash, and Bootsie Collins. Even with those well-known names, the actual star of the disc is Johnson’s playing.
Joining Johnson and the previously mentioned vocalists, the album includes contributions from Joe ‘Hoze” Fleming and Ian McDonald on guitar; Mark Winchester on upright and electric bass; Rick Lonow and Chuck Turner on drums and percussion; Michael Webb on Hammond B3, piano, and Clavinet D6; and Corey Fritz, Elijah Hall, Stefan Farbus, and Vernon James on horns.
Disc One kicks off with a rousing rendition of the blues and rock classic, Baby Please Don’t Go. The song has been kicking around since the beginning of records, and probably predates that. It’s been recorded by just about everyone so it’s kind of hard to do something highly original with it, but Johnson manages to breathe new life into the song with his amazing guitar playing. A few notes in and you know this guy is one of the best.
Johnson then follows up with his first original composition on the disc, Graveyard Blues. As you might guess with a title like that, it’s high on the mood and feeling. It’s creepy and gets under your skin in a good way. I like this one a lot and will be playing it a lot come the fall. Probably through the summer as well.
Next up is Johnson’s take on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ classic, I Put A Spell On You, with Bill Miller handling the vocals. This is another song that just about everyone has put their stamp on, and Johnson’s guitar run through the opening is his. Miller’s voice is smooth and that changes the feeling of the song just a bit, still, it’s a very good rendition of one of my favorite songs.
The next couple of song are Johnson originals. Starting off with Loose Change, a song that takes a military rhythm and layers some very cool guitar over it. Johnson’s break is very slick and makes the song very tight. Misterioso #2 is a slow smoldering jazzy number that reminds me of Santo And Johnny if they used a horn section. This is a great late night number that’s immediately going onto my playlist of songs that I can work to. Love it…
Providing the vocals on Junior Parker’s Mystery Train, one of the best known songs in the blues world, is a man with music imbedded in his DNA, John Carter Cash. The son of the legendary Johnny and June Carter Cash, he has lived and worked in the music field his entire life. Teaming up his vocals with Johnson’s explosive guitar is a stroke of genius. It’s difficult to take these well-known songs and perform them in a way that seems fresh and not derivative. Johnson finds ways to honor the original but put his own stamp on them. This is a great rendition of a classic tune.
He follows up with his version of John Lee Hooker’s immortal song, Boom Boom. He doesn’t use a vocalist, because, after all, who could ever sing the song like Hooker did? Johnson shows no fear taking on these classics, I get the feeling he’s been doing it his whole life. Hey, a man who can make glorious music with a shovel and three strings can make magic with a full six strings.
The next song is a Johnson original, Funky Bootz, and you can probably guess it’s not a classic Delta tune. Not even close, but it is a flat out funk fest. I guess Johnson needs to show that he’s got some soul running through his veins as well as the roots, blues, and Americana that he’s been playing so far. Kind of takes me back to that pre-disco era when funk ran amok. Like this one a lot.
The last song on the first disc features vocalist Bill Miller taking on Son House’s Grinnin’ In Your Face. It’s a slow burn of a number and Miller reaches deep to dig out the powerful emotions that Son put into the song. On this first disc, Johnson wrote four originals to go with five classics and he created a very good atmosphere.
If you’re a guitar fan and not appreciating his work, you might want to get your ears checked, because this guy is damn good.
Disc Two starts off with the longest cut on the album at 8:24, Rumbles Trippin’. It’s a Johnson original instrumental that allows Johnson to move through a couple of genres easily. There’s some jazz mixed with country and it sort of reminds me of a great soundtrack of a movie where the hero is driving west in the dark of night. It’s a Rorschach test of a song where you are free to let the images take you where you want to go…
Next up is Chuck Berry’s immortal Johnny B. Goode that features Bill Miller on vocals. Johnson gets to light up the song with his raucous guitar and Miller gives the vocals a smoother than expected rendition. Listen for the amazing guitar and the interplay with the rhythm section, this version might have inspired Marty McFly, you never know…
The first favorite song of mine that I can remember was Burl Ives singing Stan Jones very dark song, Ghost Riders In The Sky. It was just a banjo and Ives’ vocals and the song haunted me for years. I’ve heard many other great versions including one from Mr. Johnny Cash and here Johnson delivers an outstanding version and utilizes the talents of John Carter Cash, Ana Cristina Cash and Bill Miller on vocals. They pretty much only perform on the chorus and Ana Cristina’s beautiful voice dominates. It adds such a wild, ethereal touch to the song. Johnson’s playing is brilliant and captures that feeling of loneliness and despair of the song. I love this version and will add it to my playlist of other versions of it.
Johnson follows with another of his original instrumentals, Got The Chick’n. He’s got the Bo Diddley Fabulous Thunderbirds vibe going on this song. It’s partly bluesy but mostly funky and makes you want to get up and shake what you got. It’s another solid song that just builds his reputation even more.
Next up is Johnson’s collaboration with Bootsie Collins, Rollin’. They co-wrote the song and Collins performed the vocals on this reggae tinged number. Blues purists might not dig it too much but it showcases his ability to switch gears and still deliver a good song.
The last couple of numbers are Johnson instrumentals, starting with Bootleg Turn. It’s a fast-paced rockabilly sounding tune that never lets up from beginning to end. He ends the album with Crankin’ It Up, a song that continues that rockabilly feel but adds more swampy blues to the mix.
Instrumentals might not be all the rage for your average listener, but with talent like this, it’s hard to get upset with the minimal use of vocalists. Johnson’s playing is top notch, and I would love to see him working his magic in front of a festival crowd somewhere. I have a feeling that when he does a live show, it’s got to be a smoking affair.
Take a few minutes and watch a couple of his videos on his website, http://www.justinjohnsonlive.com/, and I think you will be as amazed as I was. While you’re there, you can see where he’s going to be, and even take some lessons from the man.
Me? I’m saving up my allowance to buy one of those shovel guitars that he plays. I plan on cranking that sucker up and driving all my neighbors crazy.