Cover photo © 2021 Laura Carbone
Guitarist, singer and songwriter, Jeremiah Johnson has hit the ground running after the end of COVID restrictions at music venues. He earned a spot on the showcase tour for Europe’s most respected label, Ruf Records, and joined fellow guitarist Ryan Perry and singer Whitney Shay to form the Ruf Blues Caravan. The Caravan recently completed a six-week tour of Europe, one of the very few US bands touring Europe. Blues Blast Magazine had the opportunity to catch up with Johnson as he ended that tour with several showcase performances on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise.
“The European tour with Whitney and Ryan went well considering it was right after the pandemic and there were a lot of questions about whether we would be able to successfully navigate the COVID restrictions from country to country. At any point we might have gotten shut down and if we had been prevented from leaving a country, it would have ruined the tour. I think we were the most tested people on the planet—sometimes we had two COVID tests within thirty minutes.
Like other musicians, Johnson struggled during the pandemic. In addition to the financial burden, COVID also made many musicians doubt if they had chosen the right career path, especially after being told how “unessential” they were. However, Johnson created an album about those frustrations entitled Unemployed Highly Annoyed which earned him a nomination for Blues Blast Magazine’s 2021 award for Rock Blues Album of the Year.
“I had just quit my day job as an iron worker, and we had 140 dates scheduled. It was going to be the biggest year of my career. Then I kept hearing how we were in the top five least essential jobs—musicians are number four on that list, and that’s a gut punch. I know why they said that. Music brings people together and they didn’t want to bring people together, but I think everyone saw with all the online concerts that in a certain way we did prove them wrong—we weren’t totally nonessential. But I’m certainly not special when it comes to suffering because of the pandemic, and I’m so thankful to the people who donated to me, so that I didn’t lose my house.”
Johnson was born in St. Louis, Missouri, but spent ten years living in Texas before returning home to St. Louis. He was a first-place finalist in the Houston Blues Society’s regional blues challenge for three consecutive years before winning the St. Louis Blues Society’s challenge and going on to represent St. Louis at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, where he made it to the semi-finals. His 2015 release Grind was produced by Devon Allman, and his 2018 album, Straitjacket was produced by Mike Zito and debuted at #1 on ITunes New Blues Releases. Straitjacket also was nominated for the Rock Blues Album of the Year by Blues Blast Magazine in 2019, while Johnson was nominated that same year for Blues Blast’s “Sean Costello Rising Star Award”. He has had five records in the top ten of the Billboard Blues Charts, and as mentioned, this past year his album Unemployed, Highly Annoyed was nominated for Blues Blast’s Best Rock Blues Album. Johnson’s versatile style sounds like a blend between old-school Chicago blues, Jump Blues, southern blues-rock and a little bit of country. He indicated that this blend was not unusual for a musician from St. Louis.
“St. Louis blues is a blend—it’s right between Chicago and Texas. It’s like Texas style, but you do it with horn sections. Ike Turner is from St. Louis—what would you call him? It’s a blend. And I appreciated all kinds of music all my life. There is greatness in every style. I don’t call myself a traditional blues artist in any way. I’m definitely a blues-rocker or a southern rocker, with a little bit of country. Even though I grew up in a big city, we weren’t too many miles until you were out in the woods, so there are country influences too.”
When it comes to instruments and equipment, Johnson is equally eclectic.
“Well, when it comes to guitars, I’m a Delaney Guitar Artist so I have mostly Delaney’s, but I also like Newman guitars, own four or five Gibson Guitars and have a few Fender Guitars as well. If it was up to me, I’d keep buying guitars—I like them all. As far as amps, I’m more of a Plexi guy, which is a Marshall amp sound. I can play Fender amps, but I prefer a Marshall sound.”
In 2014, Australian filmmaker Gary Glenn was so impressed with Johnson that he filmed his concert at the historic Capitol Theater in Burlington, Iowa. Adding in interview segments, Glenn created a “Docuconcert” film about Johnson called Ride the Blues, which begins with Johnson riding his Harley onto the stage.
“That came about because some wonderful people came and saw me play and they thought that I had the potential to be very successful and wanted to know if they could help me. I was blown away by that—couldn’t believe someone offered to do that. Sometimes I am embarrassed when I watch myself in the interview part of it. I was convinced at that time that it was impossible to have a relationship and family because you’re just gone all the time. Everyone else is going camping and you can’t go—most women get tired of that. But now I’m in a wonderful relationship and we have a son, so it is possible. I think the film did help me too. I think it helped me get signed with Ruf Records, because I know Thomas Ruf saw it.”
In the Docuconcert, Johnson also talked about the problematic relationship he had with his father. His parents divorced when he was six years of age and his relationship with his father has been non-existent for nearly a decade. His father’s decision to cease contact has been very difficult for Johnson to understand.
”I have reached out to my dad but heard nothing back. I know he’s out there because he donated money on my online concerts—that’s the only way I know he is alive. I still love him and appreciate everything he did for me. I was able to attend a visual and performing arts school taking art and music and playing clarinet in the jazz band. Then my father took me to see a concert with Alvin Lee from Ten Years After and I walked away from that knowing what I wanted to do—to play guitar and write songs and be a bluesman. I know there are a lot of children who never had a relationship with their father at all, so I still appreciate all the lessons he taught me, and I will always be thankful for our time together.”
Family relationships have always been important to Johnson, and his relationship with his grandmother inspired two songs, “Southern Drawl” and “Long Way Home” while his son, Leonardo Stone Johnson inspired the song “Leo Stone”.
“My grandmother passed away from dementia and the song “Long Way Home” is about the last three minutes that she briefly remembered who I was. I know now if I could go back to those three minutes, I would have said something important. She recognized me but was shocked that I had grown so tall and had facial hair. I still play that song. Then I had had literally just finished writing the song “Leo Stone” when my fiancé called for me to take her to the hospital to give birth to my son. The first time we played it back in the studio every one of us was in tears. It was a very touching moment.”
Some songwriters report that they constantly write down ideas for song lyrics throughout each day, while others sit down to write an entire album of lyrics at one time. Johnson indicated that he is a combination of both of those styles.
“I’m always taking notes down—every time I get an idea I save it in notes on my phone, and sometimes a whole song will just come to me. But when it comes time to make an album, I will sit and analyze what I have written and go through my notes and create the whole thing. You can’t always use what you wrote. Sometimes you go through a sad mood and have nothing but sad song notes. I like to have a flow to the album with some upbeat stuff. Also, not all the songs I’ve written turn out to be bluesy. I have probably an entire album’s worth of countryish bluesy acoustic songs that I could do, but that’s probably not a good fit for Ruf Records.”
Johnson is making revised plans for his tour schedule now that the Ruf Blues Caravan has ended.
“I like horns and for a good chunk of my career I carried a trumpet and sax player with the band. But that means you deal with more personalities and attitudes, and after COVID it’s difficult to pay for that many hotel rooms. It’s hard enough with only three. But I’m going to hit it real hard in the US this next year. I hope to hit Texas hard—I’d like to spend more time there. I’d also like to shoot a DVD somewhere in St. Louis in a nice theater. But I also intend to spend a little bit more time with my family. Leo is two now and I want to have a weekend off with my family every third week or so. You never know when you can’t be with your family again and I’m not going to let that slip away. I’ve seen some guys be very successful at family life and I’m going to try to make that happen. At one point in my life, I didn’t believe it was possible and I know it’s going to be hard work, but I’m going to make it happen. Besides, being with your family can give you great stuff to write about—those are subjects the average person can relate to as well, so I’m not looking at that time as taking away from my career. It will add to my career and make me a happier person and help me write better songs.”
Johnson’s former record producer, Mike Zito has known him for over 25 years and described him as “a heart and soul artist that leaves it on the stage every night.” His co-artist from the Ruf Blues Caravan, Whitney Shay, has no doubts about Johnson’s bright future. She stated, “It’s been such a pleasure to get to know Jeremiah over the last couple of years. He’s such a talented, hard-working musician, and a genuinely good guy. I’m so glad that we all finally got to finish out our big tour together, and I wish him the best in his career to come. I know he’ll accomplish great things.”
You can check out what’s new with Jeremiah Johnson, and find his tour dates at www.JeremiahJohnsonBand.com