'Roots from the Road'
By T.E. Mattox
he first thing you notice when walking down the street in Clarksdale,
Mississippi is the music. Sound is pulsating from every business, restaurant,
garage, storefront and coffee shop. It's probably to be expected at
this time of year, after all we're in the cradle of the blues, at the
Crossroads and Clarksdale's 9th annual Caravan Music Fest has the entire
town rockin!' Rounding the corner on Delta Ave. there's a distinctive
metallic slide blues emanating from the Cat Head Delta
Blues and Folk Art Store. From a block away the sound is reminiscent
to that of a resonator guitar, but not quite. The 'now performing' sign
reads Justin Johnson and as we soon discover he's not playing a resonator;
his slide is shredding the neck of a three-string shovel. The
crowd sits mesmerized as Johnson's instrument rings out a pure, earthy
Delta blues; a foot-stomping syncopation that would make Elmore James
and Robert Nighthawk jump and shout. As the last note fades in front
of the Cat Head, those in attendance on this beautiful
Mississippi day react in similar fashion.
After running into Johnson again at a place called Red's,
where we witnessed the incomparable Robert 'Bilbo' Walker torch the
place, it was decided to get together and talk the next morning at the
Hopson Plantation. Our conversation would encompass the uniqueness of
Justin's music, his instruments, and the direction his road has taken.
We started with Johnson's own roots. "My family has always been
musical and artistic in different ways." Johnson explains.
"My father was a great visual artist and my brother picked that
up, I think. My mom and my grandpa, music has always been a big part
of their life. My grandpa taught high school band and played trumpet
his whole life. He was in World War II and was in the Army band playing
trumpet. My mom's always been a DJ, too, which was great for me when
I started getting really interested in music and guitar. There was always
hundreds and hundreds of CD's and records."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"It's not like you can go
out and take blues lessons; you have to find people,
you have to learn it on the road and you have to learn it from performing."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
"I guess what I'm saying is that it's always
been supportive, I think in some families you want to get into music
and it's like, 'don't do that!' you know? But that was never the case.
And there was always random instruments lying around, played a little
piano, played a little trumpet, baritone horns, anything. I don't do
it as much now; when I finally picked up the guitar
it was just
waiting for me. It felt like, you know what I mean? That moment when
you know something's going to change your life. I remember the first
stringed instrument I ever played was this old Stella, no one knows
where it came from and I still have it. It was old and kind of crooked,
the intonation was shot in it and it only had one string on it. But
I remember the first song I ever played was 'Louie, Louie,' (laughing)
on the one-string Stella. It's funny because it was sort of like
one of those full circle moments because now a lot of what I teach is
the one-string diddley bow and talk about how much you can learn from
one string. So when I think back on playing and picking out melodies
on that old Stella it's one of those full-circle kind of things."
Justin Johnson playing in front of Clarksdale's
Cat Head. Photo: Yachiyo Mattox
Johnson's road has now taken him from that one-string
Stella to an assortment of farm implements, cigar boxes, tubs, bicycle
tires, ironing boards and about everything imaginable you can tighten
strings across. "Well, there are a couple of things about that
that I love," he grins. "And one is that everything
sounds different. You never know what something is going to sound like.
Visually it looks like, 'oh that's cool, because you made that out of
a shovel.' Or someone made a guitar out of a washtub, but from the artistic
point of view, from the musical, the tone, the tambour of these instruments
is very unique. And the feel of them too, in your hands inspire something
totally different. And plus, like the shovel guitar there are certain
challenges that come into play. When you're playing a shovel, a three-string
shovel as opposed to a really nice, six-string guitar that almost plays
itself, what it does is
not only does the challenge make you better
but it also
certain things are limited, but other things are brought
out of your playing. You have to use a slide with the three-string shovel
guitar, and the actions super high. And you get this different play
in it, so it inspires a totally different thing. You can push in harder,
you can dig in more like a lap-steel, but in your hands, you know?"
It's definitely an attention-getter. Johnson also uses
these unique instruments when he participates in the Blues for Schools
program. "Everyone, no matter what age they are seems like they're
interested in a different element of this art form. Some people just
like the engineering side of it or the guitar-building side of it. Some
people really love the musical side of it. And I think kids have this
sort of really pure and enthusiastic perspective on it. It's just like
fun and different and cool, they're not thinking about all the different
elements at once, it's just something fun to do and something interesting.
It's a cool guitar to play, especially the three-strings, the one-string
they're a lot easier and more accessible for beginners and kids so you
can pick it up and start strumming and you're having fun before you
know it. You don't have to learn the chords and fingerings right off
the bat before you can have fun playing it."
I heard you recently worked with kids at the Sunset
Middle School in Coos Bay, Oregon. You and the head of the guitar program,
Nick Krissie taught about 130 fifth graders how to build and play their
own 4-string cigar box guitars. What motivated you to do that? "I
think so many musicians," Justin says. "Myself included,
get into this culture and then realize how important it is. For me the
educational work I do with schools and charities, so much of it stems
from a desire to keep this going, to keep people informed about it.
When I wanted to study music, you have jazz and you have classical.
It's not like you can go out and take blues lessons; you have to find
people, you have to learn it on the road and you have to learn it from
performing. You have to put yourself in these situations, come down
to Clarksdale and watch people
a real pure and a folk kinda' way
Johnson rolls through Ground Zero in Clarksdale.
Photo: Pierre-Jean Durieu
Can you describe the music you play? "I always
talk about blues and any chance that I get when I talk to another blues
musician, I'd say, 'what do you consider blues? What do you think about?
What are you feeling when you're playing blues music?' 'Cause it's different
for everybody. But it all has to do with what you're feeling,
if you're feeling good or you're feeling bad or if you're feeling whatever
angry? And letting that come out through the music. Then
it's genuine, you know? You have some genuine emotion coming out. When
I play, every show is different and I do that partially on purpose because
I want people who come to multiple shows to see something different
every time. But it's also because I feel different every time I walk
on stage and I'm always trying to convey something that's specific to
the way I'm feeling and the room that I'm in and the people that are
in that room. Some shows I'll do more jazz, some shows I'll do just
down here in Clarksdale, you know? I just wanna' play some
blues the whole time, you know what I mean? If I'm in Memphis it might
be a little bit different kind of blues
or St. Louis or Chicago
I might be feeling that big city vibe and it might come out different
than when I'm down here on the delta. But that's part of the fun, you're
inspired by the place, you're inspired by the room but it all revolves
I call it 'roots' music for lack of a better word. Because
with jazz, I love that old Dixieland jazz, you know? With blues, I love
that old Delta blues or that early electric blues. I'm always tracing
something back to its source and I find that that's the place to really
get the inspiration."
You listen to people like Clapton, if I want to play
like Clapton I'll listen to B.B.
King or Albert King
the people that inspired Clapton. If I
want to play like Hendrix, I'll listen to Buddy
Guy, I'm gonna' listen to Lightnin' Hopkins and all of these people
that inspired him. Then you understand the roots of it, you're not looking
at the branches or the leaves you're tapping that same source."
Have you had a chance to play with anyone that you really
admired? "The most fun I've had playing with someone in a while
was actually a couple of days ago," Johnson says. "I
got the chance to play with Super Chikan (James Johnson) right
here where we're sitting. He's been all over the world and talk about
I think we did the first shovel duet. I don't play
with too many people who I feel I have a lot of stylistic similarities
with but watching him the way his right hand strums the rhythm, he plays
all these different homemade instruments and he's very good at using
three-strings, four-strings, the one-string diddley bow, and I've never
played with anyone who has the same experience in a lot of ways, as
I do playing those instruments. We'd be playing two three-strings or
a three-string and a one-string and it's very natural, we're both thinking
the same language. I've never played with someone where I felt like
we were both speaking the same foreign language, you know?"
Tell me a little about your CD, Smoke and Mirrors.
"Smoke and Mirrors is the culmination of a couple of years on
the road, really digging into the tradition of homemade roots instruments.
Not just cigar box guitars but just home-made instruments out of found
objects and there's a long tradition of it. And there's also a modern
tradition that's being continued now which is using all this new technology
like electric guitar pickups, all these electronics, different materials.
When people say, 'I love the tradition, but I'm gonna' break the rules.'
It started out with the concept I'm gonna' do an all cigar box guitar,
all roots instruments album, showcasing these modern builders I've met
from all over the world, Europe, Australia, North America and then Nikki,
my partner, the love of my life, muse, manager
the idea when we were on our way to New Orleans, driving down Highway
10. So we thought what if we can tap into the tradition as well and
make it a double disc album called, Smoke and Mirrors? Smoke being the
reference to the cigars and cigar box guitars, and mirrors being a sort
of the reflections on the past?
So I called up a guy, Bill Jehle who I'd actually
never met and I called him up and said, 'Hey Bill, this is Justin Johnson,
I don't know if you've heard of me but I've heard of your museum and
I'd love to see if I can borrow all of your cultural artifacts, you
know you're one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable artifacts, string 'em up and
record them on an album. He was like, 'Yeah man, I've been wanting to
work with you.' He was all enthusiastic about it, it was great and we
have a great friendship that all started with that conversation. He
let me use any instrument I wanted from his museum. We picked eight
or nine of his instruments that were still in good enough condition
to string up. We wanted to infuse as much history as possible, so we
recorded the electric album at Sun Studio, the birthplace of Rock and
Roll. Recorded the pre-WWII album here in the 'Shack Up Inn' at these
pre-WWII share cropper shacks and also at the crossroads at midnight
on New Year's Eve and just trying to get as much magic as we could capture
on those recordings."
Johnson and his 'tub' guitar light up the Juke Joint
Chapel. Photo: Yachiyo Mattox
You and Nikki literally live on the road
van; down by the river
any defining moments on your journey so
far? "Nikki and I have been living on the road now for three
years straight. We don't have a home base and it's a tough decision
to make. We decided the only way to find out how deep the pool is, is
to dive in
headfirst! So we decided to cut the wires on the safety
net, sold everything we own except for what we could fit into this little
23 foot box we live in. We're in North Carolina and I've got a radio
show called, the Blue Plate Special the next day in Knoxville,
Tennessee. And all of our batteries die. We have a friend in North Carolina
who's an electrician and we go to him, alternator's dead. We finally
get ready to leave at 11 o'clock at night for Knoxville, which is about
12 hours away, over the mountains. We race off over the Appalachian
Mountains and into the worst rainstorm I've ever driven in, in my life,
on the twistiest part of the mountains, getting passed by these truckers
who are irritated by how slow I'm going. I'd never driven a camper before;
an SUV is the biggest thing I've driven. Not only is it leaking, it's
leaking from the front, a solid stream of water is coming from the front,
it's leaking from the back and from the ground, there's a big hole in
the wheel-well that's kicking water up in the bathroom, the whole inside
is soaked and we finally get past the mountains right as the sun is
coming up. About an hour out of Knoxville, the propane detector alarm
goes off. So Nikki and I are soaking wet, we're frustrated and we've
been up for about 30 hours, it's raining, we both have our heads down
with the windows open trying to get fresh air thinking we're about to
die from propane inhalation. And we're both just apologizing to each
other. We finally make it to the radio station, totally panicked and
out of breath. We do the radio show and find the propane scare was just
a battery going dead and we finally have this moment where it's like,
'this was our trial by fire moment.' Everything after that was beautiful,
sunny weather, learned things one at a time, picked up things on the
road, learned them the hard way. Those are the moments I can think back
on and think, 'these are the things that keep people from doing it'
and if you do dive in head first it might be fun, you know? It might
be exactly what you needed but you never know until you take the chance.
You might end up by making a huge mistake, but it's a huge mistake you
have to make. Then look back on it and say, 'I'm glad I tried it.'
Since you are always on the road, where can people track
you? "You can find anything you want on my website justinjohnsonlive.com
and I've also got a rootsmusicschool.com
which is the platform for all the instructional work and a lot of the
interviews, a lot of the Roots from the Road interviews also.
You can go to rootsfromtheroad.com
which is my online weekly show, a video show that's interactive and
I interview a lot of the interesting characters that I meet along the
What's on your horizon, the next leg of your journey?
"I just want to continue to make my music, and by my music I
don't just mean originals but I love doing covers, too. My own versions
of anything I can get my hands on. I love saying this is my music, this
is what I'm feeling, this is what I'm communicating, and continuing
to share that message and the history and also the educational side
of it. I love doing the workshops and opening people's worlds to this
whole culture and this whole tradition and just taking it to the next
level each time. I've got a few ideas; Nikki and I are bouncing around
for the next album. We've had a few of those goose-bump moments and
that is what we follow. Literally, if we get goose-bumps talking about
it, then we know we're heading in the right direction."
the Next Generation; On
the Road with Buddy Guy; Dennis
Jones: Between Rock... and a Blues Place; JW-Jones
Breaking the Ice; Phil
Gates Plays it Forward