Just as most politicians don’t like explaining their double-talk and most weathermen don’t like relating back why their forecasts go astray, most journalists don’t like having tough questions pointed in their direction.
That’s because some things are hard to explain and some questions are hard to answer, regardless of which side is doing the asking.
Early on in his tenure of playing in Bryan Lee’s band, guitarist Brent Johnson took the brunt of a Montreal journalist’s review of the first Lee album that Johnson played on. The author went on and on about how awful Johnson’s work on the disc was and about how he wasn’t playing blues guitar, but instead was playing rock-n-roll, and about how he had no business being up on stage with an artist the caliber of Bryan Lee.
Johnson picks up the story from there.
“A couple of years later, after I got to be pretty popular up there (Montreal) in my own right, he (the journalist) came and asked me if he could interview me. I said, ‘Sure, but before we start, I have a question for you.’ He said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘What’s blues?’ He said, ‘What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘Well, you told me (in his review) that I wasn’t the blues, so I’m asking you, what’s blues? Is it Son House or is it Albert King, because they sound completely different. So which one of those guys is real?’”
As soon as the dumb-founded scribe started to ponder the query, Johnson continued on.
“I said, ‘Look, man, if you’re going to try and make a career out of bad-mouthing everybody that tries to do something a little different, that’s fine. But you have to remember that if Muddy Waters had been worried about that when he went to Chicago, he never would have bought an electric guitar, and then where would we be?” Johnson said. “None of those guys (forefathers of the blues) were worried about anything other than being themselves.”
Being ‘himself’ is one thing that Johnson has rapidly excelled at. The Texas-born guitarist/vocalist/songwriter has been the talk of the blues world recently, with near-universal acclaim of his debut album, Set The World On Fire (Justin Time Records) filling up cyberspace all across the globe. Johnson was nominated for Best Artist Debut, as well as for the Sean Costello Rising Star Award, at this year’s Blues Blast Awards. All that outpouring of attention and the accolades that have been coming his way have caught Johnson a bit off guard.
“Yeah, I’m extremely surprised, actually. I didn’t actually set out to be a front guy and go and do this. Essentially, as Bryan got older, he was having to slow down and work less … we all knew that it was coming,” he said. “And I figured out pretty quick that if you’re a guitar player you pretty much have to front your own band, because there’s a billion guitar players and most people just don’t need one.”
Once he came to grips with that fact, Step A led to Step B, which was to step out into the spotlight under his own name and forge a solo career.
“I was like, ‘OK. Either I’m going to learn how to sing and make a good record or I’m going to go get a straight job somewhere,’” he laughed. “So I’ve never been the most confident person when it comes to singing or being a front man. I really didn’t know what to expect, but so far, it’s been a pleasant surprise, for sure.”
Johnson was fully aware that with all the ebbs and flows the music industry is currently undergoing – with artists from all genres seeking high ground to camp out on – that leaving an established act like Bryan Lee and the Blues Power Band after nearly 10 years was probably not going to be a garden path to the top of the charts right off the bat.
“It’s definitely tougher now (to start a solo career in the blues) than it was maybe seven or eight years ago. Doyle Bramhall Sr. and I got to be pretty good friends towards the end of his life and one of the things that he talked to me about was that back in the early ‘80s, they all thought they were done. They were losing venues and audiences were getting smaller and it was really tough to make a living and everyone thought the days of going out and being a touring blues band were done,” Johnson said. “He said what you’ll find is that it’s really cyclical and you’ll go through down times every now and again, but it always seems to pick back up. And that’s especially true of playing roots music; it never goes completely away. It might go a little out of fashion from time to time, but it never goes away.”
The way that Johnson sees it, the key to unlock the secret door of success is the same regardless of whether it’s pop, rock, jazz, country or the blues.
“The trick to playing any kind of music is honesty. If you mean it – even if it’s not somebody’s favorite genre – they’ll probably figure out how to listen to you and might even buy a record,” he said. “People respond to honesty. That’s what you have to go for, regardless of the market or the product; honesty.”
The New Orleans-based bluesman easily appreciates the value of a good song just as much as he does a red-hot guitar lick, which explains why Set The World On Fire is packed to the gills with both. Most of the material on the album is all original tunes, which is just how Johnson prefers it.
“I wrote that whole record in a very short amount of time. I went in with the intention of making it original material. I appreciate the guys that do covers and do them well, but the way I always looked at it is like this; no one really ever got successful by playing other people’s music. You have to be you,” he said. “I was kind of afraid I might get in trouble because it wasn’t a traditional blues record in many aspects. But for me, it’s always been that I have to do what I have to do and that’s to make my own music. I can’t get up there and be Muddy Waters – I don’t have that kind of talent. It just seems like a waste of time for me to get up there and do a bunch of other people’s songs. I could go in and record a bunch of Albert King stuff, but I’m never going to be as good an Albert King as Albert King was, so I may as well just be me.”
With all the natural talent that Johnson possesses on the guitar (he started playing at age four), it’s no wonder that he’s being touted as a major force on the roots music scene. But the attention doesn’t stop there. Johnson has managed to catch the ears and eyes of some of the biggest stars on the other side of the tracks, as well – on the pop and country side of the dial.
“Taylor Swift’s people asked me to come and play for her and there have been a bunch of people out of Nashville that have asked me to come and join these big country guys and I won’t do it,” he said. “This is what I love and this is what I do.”
It may not be easily detectable with a cursory listening of his music, but the name of Johnson’s band is a telltale marker for his longtime love of punk rock. The Call Up – Johnson’s group – is named for a song off the magnificent 1981 album by The Clash, Sandinista! There might be those that shudder to think that a bluesman could have influences of punk rock at his inner-core, but according to Johnson, that shouldn’t be cause for concern.
“To me, it’s the same thing. The reason that I love punk is the same reason that I love blues; they’re both not necessarily about how technically great you are. It’s about getting your point across and being able to make other people feel what you’re feeling,” he said. “Punk is what rock-n-roll was supposed to be. It’s stripped down and raw and has a lot of energy; it’s primal. And to me, that’s what blues are, too. The two have always seemed to be kind of intertwined to me and they have both scared people over the years. For example, if you look at Joe Strummer (front-man for The Clash), right before he died, his plan was to come down here to New Orleans and start a blues band with Johnny Thunders (New York Dolls, Heartbreakers). That’s why Thunders died in New Orleans; he was down here to do that.”
To further drive home the blurring line between punk and the hardcore blues, look no further than cats like Hound Dog Taylor, R.L. Burnside or even Son House, who were every bit as punk as Strummer, Thunders or Johnny Rotten were.
“Hound Dog Taylor is one of my favorite artists and still has one of my favorite epitaphs of all-time (‘He couldn’t play shit, but he sure made it sound good.’) But it’s all about communication, about how you get your point across. That’s true in punk and in the blues. But in my world, there’s two kinds of music; good music and bad music,” Johnson said.
Johnson started coming of age in Texas when the scene there was hot with artists like Doyle Bramall, Ian Moore and Charlie Sexton tearing it up from Austin to Dallas to Houston and way beyond. Then, he moved to New Orleans and his musical metamorphous entered another stage altogether.
“It’s scary as hell (playing music in New Orleans). When we moved here I was in high school and I was dumb enough to kind of think that I was pretty good, because I’d been playing for a long time,” he said. “I made it two nights in New Orleans – I wasn’t old enough to get in to hear anybody, but I’d hang out by the windows and listen – to figure out there are some scary musicians down here. There are guys that play on the streets here that could smoke any of us. There’s a reason why you look at (Mike) Zitos’ road band and see that he’s got a bunch of New Orleans’ cats with him. We have the best rhythm sections in the world here in New Orleans. The best drummers in the world come from New Orleans, because your whole life is a parade, from the first year to the last; there’s a parade every weekend with a marching band and that rhythm becomes ingrained in you. There’s something very unique and very spiritual about music that comes from New Orleans.”
A fixture on the New Orleans scene – specifically Bourbon Street – for many decades (as well as the blues scene in general) has been the great Braille Blues Daddy, Bryan Lee. Johnson spent nearly a decade playing stages all over the world with Lee.
“The most important thing I learned from Bryan was to give everything you have, every night. He couldn’t tell if the crowd was three people or 3,000 and it didn’t matter any to him, he was going to nail them to the wall.”
That ‘leave everything on the floor’ mentality on the bandstand is just a small measure of Lee’s legacy. Another thing that has set Lee apart from some of the rest of the pack is his unflinching desire to make sure the show goes on, regardless of the situation.
“We were in Montreal after I first started playing with him and he called me one night and he sounded like Droopy Dog. I asked him what was wrong and he said he couldn’t feel the left side of his face. I thought he had a stroke and I wanted to call an ambulance and call the promoter and cancel the show (Johnson was also road manager for Lee at the time), but he said not to worry about that. He just wanted me to know it would take him a little longer than usual to get ready, because he couldn’t feel his face to shave. I said, ‘You can barely talk, there’s no way you can sing.’ He insisted that we do the show and when we got there, the place was packed to the rafters and he still couldn’t talk. Every time he talked into the mic, you could tell something was wrong with him. But when he would sing, it was like nothing was the matter. He did four more shows (after that night) before I could convince him to go to the doctor. I’m not exaggerating when I say that there were at least three tours that by the time we got done with them, he was close to death. He’s just so tough and so driven that he was not going to give up or give in for anything or anybody. When you’re that guy’s sideman and you’re 22 years old, you learn that you better not take a night off, because if that man doesn’t, you have no excuse to.”
Johnson’s dedication to Lee was one reason that when the cream of the Nashville crop kept blowing up his phone with offers to tour the world, the answer was always the same – thanks, but no thanks.
“It was a hard thing to do, when I left (Lee’s band). But I promised myself that I would not leave his band until I felt like he was where he needed to be. Honestly, I turned down the Taylor Swift gig so I could keep playing with Bryan,” he said. “I just love the guy. After spending all those years with Bryan we kind of got spoiled a little bit and are having to start over at the bottom again.”
With as much notice as his guitar skills have been drawing, it’s really debatable as to whether or not Johnson is really at the bottom. But equally as important as his maneuvers up and down the fretboard are, is Johnson’s perspective on keeping his copious abilities in check and making sure focus is not lost on the composition. Tastefully-restrained while also laser-beam deadly seems a logical way to sum up Johnson’s guitar playing.
“I really have no interest in being the guitar-hero guy. That’s not what I want to do. There are nights that I get bored if I play too much,” he said. “That’s one of the other things that I learned from Bryan, as well getting to play with Buddy Guy and Hubert Sumlin and Otis Rush and Lonnie Brooks and all of them, is that it’s really easy to over-play and the only people that will be really impressed when you over-play are the guitar players in the audience. Nobody else cares. They just care whether or not it sounds good, not how complicated the lick is. If it’s not musical, it doesn’t matter. I would rather be known as an artist rather than as a guitar player.”
There’s no doubt that Johnson’s solo career – while really just leaving the launching pad – is headed for lofty heights. But where it ends up is anybody’s guess at this point in time and he seems more than fine with that.
“As long as I can play and make a living, I’ll be happy. You don’t get into this genre to get famous or to make a bunch of money. I’m blessed with a good record company; they give me carte blanche and I can do whatever I want,” he said. “So I don’t have to worry about that. I’ve got the ability to get my music out there as long as my label is there. I just want to play and this is the only kind of music I’ve ever played and the only kind that I want to play.”
Editor’s Note: Brent was nominated for Best New Artist Debut Album in the 2014 Blues Blast Awards. To see a video of Brent Johnson, CLICK HERE
Visit Brent’s website at www.reverbnation.com/brentjohnsonband
Photos by Gary Eckhart © 2014