Q&A with Jeremiah Johnson - blends the sounds of the south, with Mississippi blues and a touch of country flair

"Blues music brings people of all kinds, together and helps one realize that we are more alike than not. I hope my music makes you want to dance, close your eyes and forget what troubles you."

Jeremiah Johnson: Drive to Southern Gate

Every great artist has a moment when they realize who they are; Jeremiah Johnson has come into his own with his new release HI-FI DRIVE BY (2022/Ruf Records). Get ready for a high-fidelity sonic explosion that combines Johnson’s master guitar work, songwriting skills, and uniquely powerful vocals into ten tracks of pure brilliance. From the first track, featuring Victor Wainwright, to the third track featuring Brandon Santini, and to the last note of the epic final track, recording delivers more hooks for days. Every song is carefully crafted with multiple layers of tasty musicianship, with new audio delights to discover every time you give this first-class release a spin. New album taps into the talents of the highly talented musicians in his hometown of St. Louis, MO. Johnson wanted to go back to the blues and rock n roll basics, tapping St. Louis Legend, co-producer Tom Maloney, and producer Paul Niehaus IV. The trio began assembling some of the best horn players, backing vocalists, and percussionists in St. Louis to create the excellent thick layers of musicianship tastefully captured on HI-FI DRIVE BY. This is Johnson's career-defining release, his masterpiece, and firmly establishes him at the top of his game. He has arrived and exceeded all expectations with this latest effort. 

(Jeremiah Johnson / Photo by Dawn Wilcox)

Born and raised in St. Louis, Jeremiah Johnson blends the sounds of the south, with Mississippi River blues and a touch of country flair. Emotionally charged and powered by the common man’s passion for life and all the struggles in-between, Johnson is known for writing songs with meaning, a powerfully persuasive voice and master-class musicianship. Johnson has released three chart toping releases, Straitjacket (#6 Billboard/August 2018), Heavens to Betsy (#1 Billboard/April 2020), Unemployed Highly Annoyed (#4 Billboard/November 2020). Combined with his previous releases, GRIND (#8 November 2015), Blues Heart Attack (#5 August 2016); Johnson’s five releases have all been in the top 8 of the Billboard Blues Album Charts. Jeremiah Johnson is a 2022 Blues Music Award Nominee for the best blues rock album, Unemployed Highly Annoyed. Over the last years, Johnson has toured the US and performed nearly two hundred European shows, opening for Mike Zito and as a featured artist in the 2020 Ruf’s Blues Caravan.

Interview by Michael Limnios          Special Thanks: Pati deVries & Jeremiah Johnson

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

If there is one thing my music journey has taught me, it’s the fact that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover. I have seen people who look conservative completely burn up the dance floor and throw it down. I have also seen big strong biker guys break down in tears when they hear a song that touches their heart. In the end of the day, it seems we all have a big heart for music.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

It can be hard to describe my sound, but it starts out with a 70’s southern rock, blues-based foundation. I have a bit of a Kentucky/Southern accent that comes out occasionally, and I always try to do what is best for the song. A good song is where the magic mojo all begins. There are thousands of amazing guitar players, it’s good songwriting that separates the diamonds from the coal. It seems like I have been dreaming about playing the guitar and writing songs since my life began. Truthfully, I was 6 years old when I first begged my parents to pay for guitar lessons. It’s been a long road and a lot of years with the same dream.              (Jeremiah Johnson / Photo by Dawn Wilcox)

"To me St Louis Blues is somewhere between Texas and Chicago styles of blues. Lot’s of horn players, plenty of piano players and a solid band that can not only shuffle, but they can bring the heat. It’s hard to explain. Why don’t you come visit our city and I can show you how good it feels."

How do you think that you have grown as an artist since you first started making music? What has remained the same about your music-making process?

I feel that I have grown in many ways, since I first started making music.  I have always tried to continue to get better at all aspects of the art. Obviously, playing the guitar has been a long and rewarding learning experience. I still take lessons from the older musicians I know, and I am always trying to develop new techniques. You can never know it all and as soon as you become content, you might as well give it up. Or at least that’s how I feel. I still get the same “HIGH” from music as I did when I was a teenager. When I hit the right notes and the band is driving hard, it still makes me feel like my feet are hovering off the floor. The constant song ideas are still coming every day, and the joy of creating something new is just as exciting as it has ever been.

Why do you think that Ruf Records (Label) continues to generate such a devoted following? How did that relationship come about?

Because Thomas Ruf is a genius! Hell, he signed me didn’t he! Seriously, Ruf Records consistently puts out high quality artists who push the envelopes of the genera. I am proud to be on Ruf Records and have a great relationship with everyone at the label. I was first introduced to Ruf Records through Devon Allman, who produced my 2014 GRIND release. Then in 2018 Mike Zito produced my STRAITJACKET release and Ruf Records signed me on  I now have 4 releases on the label.

What would you say characterizes "HI-FI DRIVE BY" in comparison to other previous albums? Do you have any interesting stories about the making of?

HI-FI DRIVE BY is a picture of where I am feel like I am now, as an older, wiser and mature artist. I am almost 50 years of age now and it feels like I am finally beginning to understand my place in the music industry. This is the first release I have worked with co-writers (Maloney and Niehaus IV); and we really tried to put the songs first. I think you can hear that on every track on “HI-FI DRIVE BY”.

“Young and Blind” is a country-blues gospel, red dirt Americana song. I wrote this song nearly 30 years ago when I was truly Young and Blind. Now I am a 49-year-old man now and these lyrics take on a whole new deeper meaning and resonance. Features the incredible harmonica talents of Brandon Santini. It is wild to think that I have been writing songs so long, that a 30-year-old song can make it on my new release and still have real meaning to me and the listener.

"I can’t say I miss anything nowadays; I just wish blues was popular like it was in the 80’ and 90’s. Bands like The Fabulous Thunderbirds, SRV and Eric Clapton used to be on the big radio stations. If we keep going the way we are headed with streaming services and lack of interest in physical CD’s, smaller blues artists are not going to be able to earn a living." (Jeremiah Johnson / Photo by Angela Girardier)

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

There have been many moments in my career that I could point to as “important experiences” and it is hard to say that one or the other was more important. I would say I am extremely thankful for the friendship I have had with Mike Zito and Devon Allman. I have known them for decades now and it makes me happy to see both doing so well. They have both been good to me. Zito and Allman have both produced records for me.

The best advice I have is, “Every step forward, no natter how small, is a step in the right direction. It could be a long road ahead, just keep moving forward and you will reach your goals. The true joy of life is in the journey.”

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

In 2019, I was fortunate enough of tour with Mike Zito. We had a 12-hr drive across Germany and Zito asked me if I wanted to take a journey or ride in the van. I said let take a journey! We rode in a taxi, two different trains, two different trains and one short plane ride. We arrived at the hotel doorstep in about 10 hours and I had such a wonderful experience traveling across Germany. I hope to be back in Europe in Fall of 2021.

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

I can’t say I miss anything nowadays; I just wish blues was popular like it was in the 80’ and 90’s. Bands like The Fabulous Thunderbirds, SRV and Eric Clapton used to be on the big radio stations. If we keep going the way we are headed with streaming services and lack of interest in physical CD’s, smaller blues artists are not going to be able to earn a living.                                 (Jeremiah Johnson / Photo by Dawn Wilcox)

"It can be hard to describe my sound, but it starts out with a 70’s southern rock, blues-based foundation. I have a bit of a Kentucky/Southern accent that comes out occasionally, and I always try to do what is best for the song. A good song is where the magic mojo all begins. There are thousands of amazing guitar players, it’s good songwriting that separates the diamonds from the coal."

What would you say characterizes St. Louis Blues scene in comparison to other local US scenes and circuits?

To me St Louis Blues is somewhere between Texas and Chicago styles of blues. Lot’s of horn players, plenty of piano players and a solid band that can not only shuffle, but they can bring the heat. It’s hard to explain. Why don’t you come visit our city and I can show you how good it feels.

What's the balance in music between technique and soul?

Technique is just a tool, that allows a musician more colors to paint with. Giving you better ability to bring soul out and allow it to come out in the music. The soul is already inside your heart and mind. The better your able to paint that picture through technique, the more vivid the image is. You work with the skill set you have and the more you practice the better you get at it.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications?  How do you want it to affect people?

Blues music brings people of all kinds, together and helps one realize that we are more alike than not. I hope my music makes you want to dance, close your eyes and forget what troubles you.

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

I would like to go back to the amazing concerts I went to in my youthful party days and actually pay attention to the damn concert! I went to some great concerts and only seen half of them!

Jeremiah Johnson - Home

(Jeremiah Johnson / Photo by Dawn Wilcox)

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