Interview with harmonica genious Jelly Roll Johnson, a Nashville-based top musician with soulful style

"I would love to go back to the south side of Chicago in the mid 1950’s when Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Howlin Wolf were playing the clubs there."

Jelly Roll Johnson: Music City Breaths

Kirk "Jelly Roll" Johnson's distinctive, soulful style of harmonica has earned him critical acclaim, numerous awards, and a place among Nashville's top session musicians. A native of Lake Charles, Louisiana, Jelly Roll's career has spanned 35 years. He began playing harmonica at age 19 in Cleveland, Tennessee. After touring with several rock, blues and country groups, he settled in Knoxville to work with the Tommy Cole Band. From 1979 to 1989, Jelly Roll played concerts and club dates all across America with Con Hunley. The group opened for acts such as Alabama, The Oak Ridge Boys, Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris.

Since moving to Nashville in 1984, he has recorded with Trisha Yearwood, Kenny Rogers, Etta James, Guy Clark, Jorma Kaukonen, Al Kooper, Travis Tritt, Shania Twain, Bobby Vinton, Tom Paxton, Kenny Rogers, Tom Rush, Hank Williams, Jr., Alan Jackson, and many others. His unique sound has been heard on over 50 gold and platinum albums, including three Grammy winning albums by Randy Travis. Jelly Roll has made numerous television appearances with various artists, including Faith Hill on "Late Show with David Letterman," Alan Jackson and Jamie O'Neal on "Tonight Show with Jay Leno," Trisha Yearwood and the Judds on the "Country Music Association Awards Show," and Con Hunley on "Austin City Limits" and "Soundstage."

In 1998, Jelly Roll won the Nashville Music Award for Best Wind Instrumentalist. After receiving nominations for 1998 and 2000, he won the best Specialty Instrument Award for 2003 and 2008 from the Academy of Country Music. Jelly regularly performs at Nashville's world-famous Bluebird Cafe with hit songwriters Fred Knobloch, Thom Schuyler, Tony Arata and Don Schlitz.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe “Jelly Roll” sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I believe in always playing what the song needs.

Cool nickname “Jelly Roll”. How did you come up with it?

It came from a song I used to sing, “Mr. Jelly Roll Baker” by Lonnie Johnson. So friends of mine decided that it would be a good nickname for me.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I have been lucky to have a very long career with lots of interesting moments. I cannot really think of a bad experience. 

"My father gave me the idea to play the harmonica. He played for fun. I wanted to learn to play an instrument, and he suggested that I try to play the harmonica, and 42 years later I am still playing."

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

I got to jam one time with Leon Russell at his home recording studio. We jammed for several hours. Playing on the CMA Awards with Trisha Yearwood was one of the most memorable gigs that I’ve ever done. I played chromatic harmonica on “A Lover is Forever” written by Fred Knobloch and Steve Goodman. It was a live television show with an audience of 40 million.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

My father gave me the idea to play the harmonica. He played for fun. I wanted to learn to play an instrument, and he suggested that I try to play the harmonica, and 42 years later I am still playing.

Are there any memories from recording and show time which you’d like to share with us?

Getting to record with Etta James was a real thrill. Jerry Wexler was producing the session, and some of the players were Steve Cropper, Lucky Peterson, and Steve Ferrone. We were recording in Alabama at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio.

From the musical point of view what are the differences between Nashville and the other local scenes?

Nashville has an incredible pool of musicians who can play anything.

Why did you think that the Southern music continues to generate such a devoted following?

I think it is the feeling in the music.

"The blues is a way to express emotions."

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I think believability is the key to any great music.

Which memory from B. B. King, Etta James, Al Kooper and Jorma Kaukonen makes you smile?

When I was recording with Jorma Kaukonen after the first take, he wanted to hear more harmonica in his headphones. That gave me a good feeling.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Country and continue to Jazz and Rock music?

The lyrics are telling the story in both Blues and Country.

Do you know why the sound of harmonica is connected to the blues? What are the secrets of?

The harmonica has a very vocal sound. It is one of the closest instruments to singing that there is.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

The blues is a way to express emotions.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?

I am always happy when I am playing music.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I would love to go back to the south side of Chicago in the mid 1950’s when Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Howlin Wolf were playing the clubs there.

Jelly Roll Johnson - official website

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