Featured Interview – Johnny Main

imageThe 44s are the band that you need to see on Saturday night, in some joint where you can cut loose after a long, hard work week, listening to a band lay it down nice and greasy all night long. Fronting the band is Johnny Main on lead guitar and vocals, conjuring up tales of love, loss, and despair, letting you know that he has been there, felt your pain, and made it through.

“We were in Florida to play the send-off party for the Legendary Blues cruise some years ago. I walk off stage and get the phone call telling me that my Mom had died. I came back to Florida two years later. We were playing a string of dates. Suddenly I get a phone call that my Dad had died. We hit the road to get back home, and two days later, my grandmothers both passed on the same day. So, I’m like, fuck Florida! I was in a real bad state of mind. It was a real shit show of emotions. I had to keep it together because I’m the band leader. That’s the trials and tribulations of life on the road. You get through it, and you move on, although I have never gotten over losing my mother. I didn’t know my biological father that well. He was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian, served in the US Army.”

At the age of seven, Main’s mother had the third grader taking violin lessons, which sets up a mental image of her tattooed adult son playing a gentle Mozart concerto on his violin. Her mother, Main’s grandmother, was a concert violinist, hence the connection. Main stuck with the lessons for six years before a record changed the course of his life.

“Classical was my first stop, but once I heard a Jimi Hendrix record I bought at Rhino Records, I said the violin is lame. I wanted to play like Hendrix on the song “If 6 Was 9.” A year later, I heard “Voodoo Child” by Stevie Ray Vaughan. That was a “wow” moment. From there, I just did my homework, studied all the magazines, books, and records I could find, anything from Stevie as well. I would read who the songs were from, then I would look those guys up, like Lowell Fulson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf….who is Chester Burnett? Then I started looking at the female singers like Koko Taylor and Bessie Smith. That was how I got started on guitar. By the time I was 17-18 years old, I was already playing illegally in bars. I never looked back. And that is what lead to where I am now.

“Once you start going down that lineage, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny Boy Williamson, it leads to R.L. Burnside, to Lucky Peterson, and the Brooks family. Being on the West coast, I was around guys like Kid Ramos, James Harman, Rick Holmstrom, Junior Watson, Nathan James, Kid Andersen, Rick Estrin, and Rod Piazza. They were playing that swinging style of blues. Back then, I had never played with a harmonica player. I was so wrapped up in Chicago and a heavy Texas thing that I didn’t know how to play that style, almost a fundamental jazz thing.

“I’m a different animal. I am a power player, playing strictly from the soul. That doesn’t mean that these other guitarists don’t do that as well. Those guys are technicians. I can be a technician too, play fast and slick. But I refer back to some of my big influences like Albert King, and Freddie King, even some of B.B’s slick stuff, and Earl Hooker, they are all amazing musicians. Their styles were so raw and in your face, so heartfelt. I’m not here to show anybody up. I just want to play songs and be respectful. If you give me some room, I’m going to cut loose.

“All of us in the band know that we are not going to fit in with the other West coast players. My style is greasy Texas-style grinders. Kim Wilson lives near me, and has come out to sit in with us. How cool is it to have Kim and Kid Ramos on stage with your band, and then Kirk Fletcher shows up to add his guitar to the mix. He and Kim were together in one line-up of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. I recently posted something on Facebook with me and Kirk cutting heads. We both were really going for it. I had heard a lot about him. He is something special, definitely a master of all of the blues guitar styles.

IMAGE“I think I am probably the most under-rated guitar player on the scene. Everyone thought that on the 44’s albums Boogie Disease, Americana, and Twist The Knife, that all of solos were done by Kid Ramos, or Junior Watson on the last one. People thought that I just did the vocals, but that is not the case. I did all of the singing and the guitar solos. Kid and Junior were playing rhythm guitar on our records. That is why I think I am under-rated. Anybody that has seen me playing locally knows that I am a guitar slinger. I try to be respectable, don’t toot my own horn. I’ve just been trying to find my own voice on guitar.”

The first band that Main joined was called Smokehouse, playing slimy bars for $20 per member for about two years. Next up was a stint in the Healers, giving him another opportunity to strengthen his chops. When the time came to move on, the guitarist had a plan in mind.

“The 44s band is a creation that I had in mind for a long time. That was when we started to cut loose and take off. There was a local harp player out here, Lester Butler, who had a band called the Red Devils. He passed away in 1998. I never met him, didn’t know much about him, but I caught on to his stuff later in life. I thought his stuff was right up our alley, a four piece band with a harmonica player.

“We were striving to be that in-your-face roadhouse band, with music that would punch you in the face, then we’d steal your lunch money, then buy you lunch and send you on your way. We wanted to be that rough and tumble band, with all of the tattoos and the whole look, kind of like punk rock blues. But we always stayed real traditional, never stepping out of the box into rock music. I had paid my dues, touring, playing covers in Sturgis for seven years. Eventually you decide that the art is more important than just going out to play gigs.

“As far as songwriting, James Harman is the cat for me out here. He doesn’t do covers, he sings his own shit. It’s not every day that you get to play with one of your idols. I did a lot of research on James, and Hollywood Fats plus Kid when they were both playing guitar in Harman’s band. I got to do a tour with him. He was like a dad to me, particularly on the business aspects. James is a very unique individual, a powerhouse vocalist. There is something so silky smooth about the way he sings, particularly with his Alabama accent. He was one of the coaches that helped me get to the next level.

“Once the 44s were formed in 2006, that’s when we got real busy. Our first record, Boogie Disease, did pretty well when it came out. People were curious about us. The follow-up record, Americana, shot off because it featured original songs. We still kept things in the blues vein with slide guitar, boogies, slow blues, some cool, funky Texas meets Chicago stuff. After that, we didn’t do a record for seven years. There was some in-house band stuff going on that wasn’t cool. We were just stale, so I was changing band members. And I had to get positive, so I dumped a lot of baggage and kept it to myself. I did pick up a harp player, Eric Von Herzen. He and I have been working together for several years.”

Main and Von Herzen are working on a new 44s album with one session already in the can. They have enlisted an impressive list of musicians for support on the project.

“There will be three sessions, with the second one coming up shortly. We brought in pro players, with Gary Ferguson from Gary Moore’s band on drums, and Bill Stuve on bass. He has been with Rod Piazza, Harman, and many other great bands. Kid Ramos will be helping out on rhythm guitar. We are in a safe studio environment, everybody is wearing a mask, and we are ten feet away from each other. Everyone is isolated in five different rooms. No high-fives, no hugs, nothing!

image“Our last disc, Twist The Knife, was all covers. We needed to put something out to remind people that we were still here. So it had to get it done fast. I’m not sure how well it did. It was short, with only eight songs. The new recording will feature original material. The first four songs we did were kind of like Gary Clark Jr. meets Doyle Bramhall meets Freddie King. For the session coming up, we will be working on four more tunes that come out of John Lee Hooker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Freddie King, some Albert King and the Fabulous Thunderbirds..

“When we got through the first session, we were looking at each other going, Dude, every song is averaging seven & a half to eight minutes. The sound engineer was telling us that the songs were pretty long. To be honest, none of us had played in so long, because of the lock-down for five months, so nobody wanted to stop playing! So we had to shorten a few things. We plan on having a few special guests as well. We are thinking of calling it Super Sessions.

“Eric and I are funding the entire project so that we maintain complete control. We weren’t totally satisfied with the mixing and mastering on the last album. Now we are going back to the guy that did a killer job on my first two records. He is that much better, so that is who I want to stick with. He’s had 14 years of practice. A lot of people are sitting around bumming out because they can’t do live shows. We are in the studio, writing songs, and creating art.”

The band recently got an offer to do a live show in Costa Mesa. Main contacted the band members to check to see who would be comfortable playing live. The rhythm section was not up for it, while Main, Von Herzen, and Kid Ramos wanted to do the gig. Such is life for musicians during the pandemic, with everyone wanting to be safe and yet defining safety in a variety of ways.

“But at least I’ve had the time to sit back and listen to other artists. I’ve watched plenty of YouTube videos of country artists like Chris Stapleton, some bluegrass, and other genres. My wife works from home, so I get to run amok in the house. I worked on putting new tubes in my amps and built a guitar just to stay busy. I wanted to stay away from the news.”

The guitarist has found some ways to make life more interesting during his down time.

“In front of my house, I have two life-size statues of the Blues Brothers. The are six feet tall, Jake and Elwood. What happens is that whoever the mail-person is gets weirded out when they see John Belushi standing there with his hand out. So they will place the package on top of his hand. He has a microphone in his other hand, looking like he is singing praises to the Lord. It’s funny to watch, because they always put the package on his outstretched hand! I sit there watching out my bay windows, laughing at their reactions.”

There has been other good news that has come Main’s way this year, adding more excitement to his life.

“I got a guitar endorsement, then I got an amplifier endorsement. I’m thinking, wow, you guys must be really bored if you are tracking me down! I was messing around the other day with the new combo. Things have been a bit depressing. So I put my phone in my golf shoe to record a video of me on the new guitar and amp, which I then loaded onto Facebook. I was rocking out with a Univibe phaseshifter and Tube Screamer with some reverb.

“It has been hard to focus on music. For a few months I didn’t touch my guitar. I couldn’t go get strings from a guitar shop because they were closed. I tried ordering some on-line. It took four to five weeks to get them. Half the time they didn’t show up or were the wrong size.

“Soon, I will be getting a custom Grez Mendecino guitar. I tried one at the NAMM show in January. They let me take it to play on my shows. Then in March we get locked out. The builder, Barry Grzebik, is in San Jose, in the Bay area up by San Francisco, so I couldn’t get it back to him. I used it on the recordings we have done so far for the new album. Kid Andersen has a Grez, and so does Matt Hill, Laura Chavez, Nick Moss, and Johnny “The Cat” Soubrand. It was by far the best guitar I’ve played. Mine will be a one-of-a-kind custom model.

image“I met Barry at Kid Ramos’s birthday party in January. I told him that I always wanted to play a Mendocino model. He replied, I’ve got one right here, try it out. On the back of the headstock, it was signed by Kid Andersen. Barry said that Kid had tried it out for quite some time. I figured if Kid had it, that’s good enough. Later, Kid asked Barry whatever happened to that Mendocino that he liked. Barry told him that Johnny Main has it. Kid was like, Johnny Main has it, he’s my mini-clone. We both have beards and are stout guys. But I’m short, so it’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito!

“Then for the amplifier, I will be using a Nelson amp. They are built in Costa Mesa by Kevin Nelson. The guy was an amp builder for Fender for twenty years. I stumbled across one, which he was selling at a fair market price. Eric, my harp player, bought the other matching one. It is like a Fender Tweed Deluxe, with point-to-point wiring, 6L6 and 12AX7 tubes, and a solid state rectifier. And it is a flip top. The tubes stick up on the top of the amp. It only has two knobs, volume and tone. It is pushing 22 watts with 125 watt speaker output. It is unbelievably powerful and responsive. I love playing my cherry red ES335 Dot guitar through it. It’s probably the best amp I’ve ever played”

From 2006 to 2010, the band was on the road a lot, doing more than 200 shows a year. As you would expect, Main has plenty of stories to tell from his years of touring. Not all of them can be shared in a public forum. But he has his favorites, including one about a night in Chicago some years ago.

“Billy Branch had a weekly jam that ran for years. My harp player at that time, Tex Nakamura, is of Japanese descent. He would dress like a gangster. A Chicago musician, Morry Sochat, gave us a ride there and dropped us off. He had no interest in going into the club. When we walked in, everything stopped like somebody pulled the needle off the record. It was solid black inside. Our bass player was a tall Italian guy, all tattooed. You got me with all the tattoos, and Tex looking gangster. Billy yelled out, hey the 44s are here! Then everything was cool, because Billy knew us, so the music started up again. It seemed like they thought we walked in looking for a fight. But we just wanted to play blues. It was a blast. I also made a stop at the Chicago Music Exchange that trip, but I couldn’t afford anything in there.

“Doing over 200 shows, playing five nights a week, is hard on your voice, especially when you are giving it your all. So I had to readjust set lists because I can hang in there for three shows but then my voice needs a rest. Keep in mind we are driving in the van from show to show, with everybody talking. And, of course, there was alcohol involved too! I wasn’t drinking hot tea with lemon. We were hardcore road warriors, playing all over the country and the world.

“I put so much time into this, so many years, that it is gratifying when you finally get to see some payoff. All I wanted was to be respected by my musical peers. I certainly didn’t get into this to be famous. You want to be the best you can be creatively, so you put the blinders on, put your nose to the ground, and focus straight ahead on being a professional musician. You have to be mentally strong in addition to making smart business decisions.

“Some of us can’t do that, They get out there and suddenly the train is running off the tracks. It has always been me doing this shit myself. At the end of the day, I hire and fire. So I have to keep my shit together in order to keep the train running smoothly. The other life lessons you have to learn are to be humble, and be nice. You learn that from experience.

“I’ve had a lot of loss in my life. If I can get can get over all of it without going nuts or killing myself, we can all make it through the situation with this virus. We just need to keep our heads, keep your wits about you, and have respect for people, because you don’t know everyone’s story. And when the new record comes out, it is going to be wicked!’

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