Johnston's big year culminated this month with the release of his debut album, Foot Hill Stomp, and a purposefully unpublicized record-release party at the New Daisy Theatre on Sunday, January 13th.
But this overnight success was a long time coming for the 36-year-old Johnston, who ended up in Memphis about six years ago to play the Bluestock festival. While in town for the festival, Johnston hoped to catch a glimpse of hill-country blues legend Junior Kimbrough, whose music Johnston had never heard. Kimbrough ended up canceling at Bluestock and Johnston instead visited Kimbrough's North Mississippi juke joint, where he again missed Kimbrough and instead saw a house band playing "Brickhouse" and Bo Diddley covers.
Johnston, at the time an aficionado of country blues in the vein of Robert Johnson and Robert Wilkins, returned unimpressed to Japan, where he'd been living for several years. But he was back in Memphis a few months later and soon found himself again at Kimbrough's, where he fell in love with the electric hill-country blues and became a member of the Soul Blues Boys, a backing band led by Kimbrough's son Kinney. "That was the best period of my life," Johnston says of his tenure with the Soul Blues Boys. "I went down there every Sunday and played for $25, a chicken sandwich, and all the beer I could drink. And after two years I was up to $30. It was a real trip to be thrown immediately into the scene."
Johnston's first few years in Memphis were hardscrabble, living out of his truck sometimes. "When I came to Memphis I was over 30 years old, and it's rough being 30 and poor. By all white standards, I was miserable. And that's something I've had to learn," Johnston says of his total immersion in Delta blues culture. "The exposure to the black culture, especially the rural black culture, gave me a lot of hope and relieved me of a lot of fears. Life is meant to be lived slow and long and relaxed. A couple of years at Junior's and I felt like I was reborn. It was the most spiritual thing that ever happened to me in my life. The years that I spent out there will never stop giving back to me."
When Junior's burned down in April 2000, Johnston says he "came back to Beale Street with [his] tail between [his] legs." "For the first year-and-a-half I was in Memphis I played on Beale, but I couldn't work much country blues into it," Johnston says, "and by the time I got back from Junior's that's all I would play."
Johnston says he went door to door on Beale looking for a club that would let him play break sets. Legend's agreed to take him in. Johnston played country blues in between other peoples' sets at the club for about a year before the Beale Street Blues Society's Dennis Brooks talked him into entering its annual talent contest.
Johnston had previously struck up a friendship with John Lowe, the owner of Xanadu Music & Books, who makes his own diddly bows (one-stringed, cigar-box guitars). Faced with competing against 50 of the world's best blues bands in the International Blues Challenge, Johnston asked Lowe to experiment with a double-necked version of his diddly bow so he could play a bass and guitar at the same time. Johnston then rigged up a foot-activated drum system to go with the new instrument and became a one-man three-piece band. Johnston worked this novel arrangement into his more traditional solo set for the contest, a virtuoso performance style he has since demonstrated before countless local audiences.
His triumph at the Blues Challenge and the subsequent exposure it generated presented him with a wealth of career options, but Johnston has thus far made the unexpected but entirely sane choice to maintain his independence. Partly inspired by the entrepreneurial strategy of folk star Ani DiFranco, Johnston has deliberately opted out of the record-label game, instead putting Foot Hill Stomp out on his own under the self-created FTRC imprint -- "Fuck The Record Company."
"My first impression of the music business is nobody knows what to make of it, especially the musicians," Johnston says of his attitude toward the conventional notion of "making it" in the music business. "They live in a constant state of nail-biting. First, it's 'Can we get a record deal?' Then, 'Are they going to release it?' Then, 'What's gonna happen after we find out that we owe [the record company] money at the end of the tour?' I've heard so many horror stories from friends who have been through it," he says.
Johnston's strategy for surviving "off the grid" is to foster a direct line of communication with his audience, largely through e-mail. "Here I was playing on Beale with a tip bucket, and I thought, What if I ask people to throw e-mail addresses in there too? Street musicians can go to the public library and get a Hotmail account, and that's exactly what I did. I couldn't afford a computer at the time. I figured that with all the people who I play to, if I could keep in contact with a certain percentage of them, why would I even need a record deal?"
"It's important not to lose track of people that you're touching," Johnston says. "If I play out on Beale Street on a busy night, the way people circle the street, I can reach thousands of people. I tell people, 'Put your name and e-mail in my tip bucket and I promise you I'll never sign with a record company and I also promise you I'll never charge you what they charge you. If it's $15 down at Tower, I'm going to sell it to you for $10 and still make $7 more than I would with a record deal and you'll pay $5 less and we'll do it all over the Internet.'"
Johnston's recent release party offered a modest demonstration of his growing fan base. A "private" party that Johnston publicized solely through his e-mail network, the show drew about 450 people, with Johnston estimating about 200 people from his e-mail network (which currently numbers over 2,000, according to Johnston) who live outside the tri-state area.
Starting about 7 p.m. and lasting well into the morning, Johnston's was no typical record-release party. Rather, it was a revue that felt something like the Band's famous Last Waltz concert, except this one was meant to be a symbolic beginning to Johnston's career, not an ending. Johnston invited a slew of guests, among them, Blind Mississippi Morris and Brad Webb, the Soul Blues Boys, the Burnside Exploration, and, most dramatically, nonagenarian fife-and-drum master Othar Turner, who performed with a group that featured his young great-granddaughter Sade, whose own fife-work brought the house down. Johnston ran around all night acting as ringleader -- introducing acts, sitting in, sometimes just sitting back and beaming. He also stopped in the middle of the show to hold an awards ceremony for those who have helped him along the way. Trophies went to Webb, Lowe, Turner, the Daisy's Mike and Brad Glenn (for helping him "negotiate the politics of Beale Street"), and hill-country blues matriarch Jessie Mae Hemphill, who makes a crucial appearance on Foot Hill Stomp. Johnston says the night was a template for what he hopes will become an annual event.
And in case you were wondering at this point, yes, the record itself is good enough to warrant such an event and to confirm Johnston's growing reputation. The most accomplished blues-based record to come from a Memphis artist since Alvin Youngblood Hart's Start With the Soul a couple of years ago, Foot Hill Stomp is a ragged, invigorating take on the hill-country sound. Recorded at Webb's studio last fall, Johnston mines material from Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and Rainey Burnette in a manner that, with a few added touches, replicates the one-man-band approach he's perfected live.
Foot Hill Stomp also occasionally strays from the hill-country style with compelling results. A jaunty version of Robert Wilkins' "That's No Way To Get Along" (which most listeners may recognize from the Rolling Stones' version, under the title "Prodigal Son," from Beggars Banquet) hints at what Johnston's music may have sounded like before he came to Memphis, while the sing-songy original "Chicken and Gravy" -- a writing and performing collaboration with Hemphill -- is a total charmer.
Can Johnston get his music out to enough people to make turning his back on the record industry worth it? "I may not get rich and famous," he says, "but the people on my e-mail list feel like family to me."
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