Interview with "wizard" Justin Johnson -- one of the world’s leading ambassadors for the homegrown music movement

"The Blues and Roots music blossomed from cultures that vehemently punished those who would create art which challenged the oppressive nature of their society."

Justin Johnson: Smoke On The Strings

One of the world’s leading ambassadors for the homegrown music movement, international touring and recording artist Justin Johnson has been hailed by Guitar World as a “must-see act”, dubbed “The Wizard” for his mastery of stringed instruments, and recognized as Slidestock International Slide Guitar Champion. He has also earned endorsements from guitar builders around the world, published educational books on music theory and technique, and released a series of instructional DVDs, but it is a deep commitment to sharing his passion for Roots traditions that fuels his nonstop tour. Justin's highly anticipated double album "Smoke & Mirrors" (2014) is the most comprehensive musical statement yet made, about the past, present, and future of handmade American Roots instruments - A sensory immersive musical journey that will have you spellbound from the first note.

Countless Blues Legends started their musical journey on homemade musical instruments like the Cigar Box Guitar and One-String Diddley Bow. This interactive workshop will dive into the history, performance techniques, and significance of these Classic American Roots instruments. In the Winter of 2014, Justin published his first instructional book, Roots Music According to Justin Johnson: Comprehensive Reference of Scales and Chords for the 3-String & 4-String Guitar. It is the first ever comprehensive reference manual for 3-string and 4-string guitar theory. In addition to his DVD and Book Series, Justin also offers live webcasts, an extensive YouTube instructional video Library, and an instructional Roots music Blog. "IF WALLS COULD TALK" is the newest album (2016), recorded at Cash Cabin and produced by 5x Grammy Award winner John Carter Cash and Chuck Turner. Album Set includes CD, full-length DVD of behind-the-scenes video footage of studio sessions and 24-pg booklet of photos & the stories behind the songs.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Roots music and culture? What does the blues mean to you?

Roots music and culture has taught me that a genuine passion for artistic self-expression cannot be contained or repressed. The Blues and Roots music blossomed from cultures that vehemently punished those who would create art which challenged the oppressive nature of their society. Poverty, racism, and classism aimed to silence any challenging ideas from reaching a mainstream audience, but it only served to fan the flames of passion in those who felt the inspiration to create music. For this reason, the music of the oppressed becomes more emotionally charged than it would be otherwise. This fact serves as a constant inspiration when dealing with the inevitable challenges of making a living through creating art without succumbing of the pressures of societal or commercial norms.

How do you describe Justin Johnson sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

In a word…feeling. If I am not feeling the music I am performing, the music will not make the listener feel anything. This is my guiding light whenever I am on stage or in the recording studio. I will not release a song or perform it live if I am not feeling the mood of that composition. There are many talented musicians in the world, but far less who move the listener to truly feel the emotion during a performance. I am constantly aiming to communicate emotion and stories through my music.

How has the Roots and Blues music and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Roots and Blues music has literally taken me around the world through my tours. There is such an international love and affinity for American Roots Music, that everywhere I’ve gone, from Paris to Tasmania, I’ve found that the local cultures are enthusiastically bonded by a deep appreciation for Roots music… by Roots Music, I’m referring to the early musical roots that have led to the genres we know today… the distilled, pure, organic, wellsprings that generally only survive through early recordings, and through family and social traditions that have passed them down over generations. It’s a very powerful an eye-opening experience to see first-hand how music can bridge the gap between people from opposite sides of the world, with different languages, upbringings, political views, and religious beliefs. The human language of music transcends all of that.

"Poverty, racism, and classism aimed to silence any challenging ideas from reaching a mainstream audience, but it only served to fan the flames of passion in those who felt the inspiration to create music."

What were the reasons that you start the Roots/Folk/Blues researches and experiments?

I can answer that question with a song. “Last Night,” by Lightning Hopkins. Hearing that song changed my direction in music forever. 

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, workshops and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I have many stories that range from hilarious to down-right creepy from the recording of my Smoke & Mirrors double album… recorded in part at the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis TN, in part at the legendary Mississippi Delta Crossroads, and in part within the walls of an old sharecroppers shack. Probably the most powerful experience during that recording was when we were recording at the Crossroads, with the engineers from Sun Studio, on New Year's Eve night, as 2013 rolled into 2014. We powered Sun Studio's field recording equipment off of the coach battery in the tour bus that Nikki and I live in. I was playing a 90-year old 6-string Dixie Maid Cigar Box Guitar that I had obtained on loan from a roots instrument museum. Because the guitar had it’s original tuners and the temperature was well below freezing, I couldn’t tune it to the Open D drone tuning that I had planned for the song. Instead, the highest I could tune was Open A, 2 1/2 steps below Open D. It was the darkest and lowest tuning I had ever used... so was the legend of the devil tuning your guitar at the crossroads in effect?

I sat in that chair, centered in the middle of the legendary crossroads where some say Robert Johnson made "the deal"... all lights and engines were off at the time of recording so it was utter quiet and dark, but for a single spotlight on the chair. We'd completely lost track of time, as setting up and preparations took several hours... and the timing just so happened that on the very first song I recorded there, Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground", as the last notes rang out, fireworks went off miles away in the distance, which you can hear on the actual recording on the album. It was the sound of the fireworks far off in the distance that made us realize that the song happened to end at exactly Midnight, quite by chance.

How do you describe ‘If Walls Could Talk’ sound? Are there any memories from studio which you’d like to share?

“If Walls Could Talk” is my musical homage to Nashville and the soundtrack to the time I’ve spent living here in Music City.  While Nashville is probably best known for Country music, it has always been a musical melting pot, boiling over with influences from traditional Appalachian music, Bluegrass, Country, Rock, Jazz, Roots, Blues, Americana, and others. So many styles were born of, or refined on, the stages and studios of Nashville. My goal was to make an album that pays tribute to those influences, while telling a story that hasn’t yet been told.

“If Walls Could Talk” was produced by 5x Grammy Award Winner John Carter Cash, son of Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash.  The thing I will always remember from this recording is the ease with which everything was accomplished. Everyone had a role, and every member of the recording, filming, producing, engineering, and creative team worked like a well-oiled machine. We enjoyed the recording process so much that we created a feature-length DVD that takes you into the studio for a fly-on-the wall experience of the entire album being made.  That DVD is included with every CD copy of “If Walls Could Talk.”

"The new generation is as passionate about Roots music as any generation, but I think the key to ensuring a strong appreciation of Roots music in the new generation is to make it fun and relevant to their current interests."

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

One deficiency that I see in music today, compared to music from the past, is that there seems to be a lack of mainstream appreciation for instrumental music. In the first half of the 20th century, you could hear instrumental music on the radio all the time. Not just jazz, but music from artists like Santo & Johnny, the Ventures, Dick Dale, Duane Eddy, Chet Atkins, etc. all made huge musical impacts and created deeply emotional musical statements that were not only classic recordings, but hugely successful commercial hits. I fear that without musicians being encouraged to communicate without the literal nature of lyrics, many great songs will never be heard or recorded.

What touched (emotionally) you from the local scenes of your trips to Australia, Europe, and coast to coast in USA?

I am constantly humbled and amazed at the sense of history when I travel on tour. Whether its seeing the amazing architectural history in places like Amsterdam or Delft, Netherlands, or the artistic history in a place like Paris, where every bridge, building, fountain, and square seems to showcase some form of artistic masterpiece. When those experiences are juxtaposed to the geologic wonders of the South Dakota Badlands or The Grand Canyon, you begin to pull together a view of human and artistic history, in conjunction with the history of this planet. That feeling of seeing your place and your time on this earth gives a respect for those who have come before, and instills in me a sense of purpose for the days that I have here on earth.

How did your involvement with Cigar-Box begin and what made you get involved? How difficult is the construction?

Several years ago I was performing a concert, and the owner of the music venue handed me a 4-String Cigar Box Guitar on stage in between songs, asking if I could play it during my set. I was happy to oblige, but had never played a 4-string guitar, so I had to improvise a tuning and playing style that suited the peculiarities of that particular instrument. There was something magical about the combination of look, feel, sound, soul of this kind of instrument that challenged and intrigued me. The desperate and rugged of the cigar box guitar’s sound seemed to be closer to the roots blues tone and voice that I had been striving for.  The construction of a simple homemade Roots instrument can be as simple as attaching a string to a piece of wood and plucking it, or be as advanced as a high-end custom-shop acoustic or electric guitar. There are no rules or limits to the simplicity or complexity other than those that exist in the builder’s imagination.

"Like other forms of art, Blues music is accessible to everyone, no matter what race, social position, or economic condition. In fact, Blues music sprang from people who were dealing with incredibly challenging and unjust social conditions."

Do you know why the sound of cigar-box and slide is connected to the Roots music? What are the secrets of?

As I delved deeper into the complex and fascinating history of these instruments, I realized that most of my musical role models learned to play on homemade instruments. Pioneers like B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Lightning Hopkins, Blind Willie Johnson, Elmore James, Bo Diddley, and many more, started out on humble roots instruments like the one-string diddley bow or simple hand-made guitars constructed out of found objects. The slide is strongly connected with this style of learning because many of these simple instruments lack a fretboard... so in order to play melodies, the player must use a guitar slide in order to play melody notes.  Whether you use a purpose-build guitar slide or a piece a pipe, a pocket knife, a bottle, a bone, or a smooth rock, the idea is the same…the player gently but firmly presses the object against the strings, and slides it up or down the length of the string to change the pitch, mimicking the vocal inflections of the melody line. 

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Diddley Bow with Cigar-Box and continue to Resophonic?

I believe the strand that connects the one-string diddley bow to the cigar box guitar and resophonic guitar is one of ever-expanding innovation in the face of a need to create more advanced art and music. All three instruments sprung up as a solution to very specific circumstances. The Diddley bow is the simplest of all stringed instruments, therefore it is the perfect instrument when supplies and time are limited. The cigar box guitar is a similar instrument, that is only slightly more complex in the sense that it usually has multiple strings, therefore it can play both melodies and harmonies, lending itself better to solo playing and harmonic accompaniment. The downside to most acoustic instruments is that their volume is limited, which led to the development of resophonic guitars, which use spun metal cones to project the sound at much higher volumes that a traditional wooden instrument. In addition to adding volume, the resonator cones also generate very tasteful and district overtones which are very characteristic of delta blues, traditional, folk, and bluegrass music.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

As I’ve toured over the years, I’ve had so many amazing experiences, and few would have been possible without the open hearts of fans along the road.  It’s one thing to travel from airport-to-airport and hotel-to-hotel at tourist destinations, but when you’re touring with music, you really get out of the English-speaking, Americanized parts of the world, and come to rely on friends and fans to bridge the cultural gaps. This has given me a much better understanding of the countries I’ve toured. Not only does this immersive experience teach you about differences, it teaches you how easy and exciting it is to find common ground with people all over the world. One of my favorite quotes, and probably some of the best advice I can think of, is from Thelonious Monk who said: “genius is the man who’s most like himself.” That has always stuck with me. When it comes to art, you are always going to be best at what is genuinely “yours,” and if you make decisions based on what you are personally most inclined to, it will always be easy to be authentic.

"I fear that without musicians being encouraged to communicate without the literal nature of lyrics, many great songs will never be heard or recorded." 

You’re the founder of Roots Music School. What is the relationship of new generation with Roots music?

While RootsMusicSchool.com is designed as a resource for Roots music enthusiasts of all ages and skill levels, some of my most rewarding work has been to inspire the youth of today to leave their own footprint on the future of American Roots traditions. The new generation is as passionate about Roots music as any generation, but I think the key to ensuring a strong appreciation of Roots music in the new generation is to make it fun and relevant to their current interests. Any topic will be boring and fall to the wayside if it is presented with a strictly academic approach. From my experience teaching children how to play and build their own musical instruments, the secret has been to present the history and techniques in a fun way. Just about every student I have worked with loves the idea of making a musical instrument. Once they feel the pride of that accomplishment, they will be more interested in taking the time to practice and develop the skills necessary to learn it, since they have already invested their pride and enthusiasm into it.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

When you do something for a living, and depend on an industry for your livelihood, it’s very easy to wish that the industry could conform to your particular situation. While the business side of the music industry will always be based on profit, the fans are always the one who support it. A huge part of the marketing of music is designed to convince music listeners that something is “popular,” whether it is or isn’t. The “big music machine” is currently set up to purchase radio play, buy their own artist’s album thousands of times in iTunes, and pay people to view their artists’ music videos to boost view numbers... the concept is that the consumer will buy what already appears to be popular. This taps into the concept of peer pressure, and people’s desire to fit in with the pack. I’d love to see more consumers giving attention to acts that genuinely appeal to them... acts that may or may not not have major label backing... acts that may lack the global marketing budgets to elbow their way into the ears of the music lovers, but genuinely move them as listeners. I’d like to see more authenticity, true artistic expression, and individual thought.

"One of my favorite quotes, and probably some of the best advice I can think of, is from Thelonious Monk who said: “genius is the man who’s most like himself.” That has always stuck with me."

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better musician?

I would say that the biggest obstacle I’ve had to overcome is being an instrumental artist. Much of my favorite music is instrumental, and some of my favorite songs are instrumental hits from the mid-1900s... songs like Santo and Johnny’s “Sleepwalk,” Dick Dale’s “Misirlou,” Booker T and the MG’s “Green Onions,” and so on. Back then it wasn’t uncommon to hear an instrumental pop or rock song on the radio. It’s much tougher today, as the collective western musical ear has been re-calibrated to think that if there are no words or singing in a song, it doesn’t hold the same weight. In reality, I think that instrumental music can carry just as much or more emotional weight, because when you don’t have lyrics offering a literal message, the listener is able to fill in their own stories and images. Take film for example... Most films are carried along by hours of instrumental soundtrack that guide the emotional experience of the viewer. Those films are very different to experience when watched on mute, or when you see clips from pre-production!

What is the impact of Blues, Folk, and Roots music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

Like other forms of art, Blues music is accessible to everyone, no matter what race, social position, or economic condition. In fact, Blues music sprang from people who were dealing with incredibly challenging and unjust social conditions. Blues music became a very important release valve for those feelings, and a forum for communicating messages that were impossible or dangerous to communicate in any other way. Sometimes music is the best way to express what you feel, whether it’s literal through lyrics, or translated through the notes and inflections of an instrument. Basically, music is always there as a therapeutic method of releasing and communicating feelings, and telling stories of the joys, triumphs, struggles, and social injustices in our society. Music has proven itself to be one of the most powerful, meaningful, and effective tools of mass communicating the struggles and glories of everyday people, and I’m honored to play my part in this ever-evolving global language.

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

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that someone, at some point in time, in the history of the world, was the very first person to make music. I’ve always wondered what that first rhythm or melody was. Was it a voice, a pluck of a string, a percussive thump? I would love to hear the very first representation of artistic expression through the medium of sound.

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