The noughties were the decade when the music community liberated itself. Suddenly any ‘musician’ with half a voice could record an album at home, create a website and sell it on- line. The downside was that there were suddenly thousands more ‘recording artists’ competing for our attention and some of the finest songwriters of the decade really didn’t get the attention they deserved. One of those is Will Johnson.
Let me tell you a little about Will. He’s a workaholic; this year alone, he has toured with his own bands, Centro- matic and South San Gabriel, performed a few solo gigs and played guitar and provided backing vocals for Drive By Trucker Patterson Hood’s solo venture ( including a fine set at No Depression's first festival at Marymoor Park in July). More recently, he could be found on the road playing drums for indie ‘supergroup’, the Monsters Of Folk and has just released a duo album with Jason Molina ( of Magnolia Electric Co ). Did I mention that he had exhibition of his baseball art in Dallas, Texas back in August ?
Named after a model of an Italian accordion, Centro- matic were formed in 1997 in Denton Texas as a vehicle for Will Johnson’s prolific and eclectic songwriting. The four core members- Scott Danbom ( keyboards, violin, harmony vocals ), Mark Hedman ( bass, guitar ), Matt Pence (drums plus studio production/ engineering ) and Will have stayed together throughout, a remarkable feat considering their lack of commercial success. Johnson’s early songwriting was influenced by the Minneapolis indie bands of the mid 80's – Husker Du, Soul Asylum and the Replacements but as we moved into the new millennium, he spread his wings to accommodate his more mellow, literary writing and formed South San Gabriel- the same four guys plus guest musicians on pedal steel, guitars and on the last release Dual Hawks, cello.
My first live experience of one of Will’s bands was in 2004. I had read some positive reports about South San Gabriel and as lover of what we used to call alt.country, I thought I would give them a try. They were playing in a small, very noisy bar called Bigsbys in Austin, Texas during the annual South By South West festival and the enlarged band ( Anders Parker and Brent Best on additional guitars plus Matt Stoessel on pedal steel ) were too big for the stage with the result that Scott Danbom was sitting at his keyboard in the crowd.
The next hour was the most joyous, uplifting experience I had witnessed at a live gig for many a year as the band worked their way through their most recent release Welcome Convalescence and somehow Scott Danbom’s angelic harmonies managed to transcend the warbling girls at the bar who had no interest in the music. If it had just been a set of straight down your throat hard rock then it wouldn’t have been difficult but Welcome Convalescene is the most beautifully arranged intricate suite of quiet, melancholy country tinged songs you are ever going to hear. I’ve seen it compared to an alt.country version of Dark Side Of The Moon and although I wouldn’t go that far, I can see why somebody would make the connection. Like all good music, the complex arrangements take some time to register but believe me the effort is worth it. On this Friday night in Austin when 6th Street and its bars were awash with noisy clubbers just looking for a good time, they proved to me without question that they were something special.
Since then I’ve caught either of Will’s two bands and Will solo many times, both in Austin and here in the UK and there would have to be a family disaster for me to miss one of his visits to the UK. As I mentioned earlier, he’s a prolific songwriter and only the limitations of his record company’s budget seems to have suppressed his muse in recent years. However he’s still managed to put out at least one album a year throughout the decade if you include 2007’s Centro- matic eight track EP Operation Motorcide and the quality has never dipped.
To list highlights would be to name every album which you can find on their website ( www.centromatic.com
)but personal favourites include the hard, driving but always accessible fuzzed-up Crazy Horse rock of Centro’s Love You Just The Same ( 2003 ) and Fort Recovery ( 2006) and South San Gabriel’s aforementioned alt.country albums Welcome Convalescence ( 2003 ), The Carlton Chronicles ( 2005 ) and Dual Hawks ( 2008 ). The Carlton Chronicles is a concept album about a cat called Carlton, an ambitious song cycle which shouldn’t work but like a spellbinding plot in The Wire, holds your attention from the very first note. You just have to know what happened to Carlton and whether he survived. There’s also another string to Johnson’s bow in that with the minimalist help of Scott Danbom, there are two fairly bleak solo albums, the best of which is 2004’s Vultures Await. Think Springsteen’s Nebraska in terms of atmosphere and arrangements and you wont be far wide of the mark.
So why isn’t Will Johnson a household name when less dedicated musicians like Ryan Adams and Ray Lamontagne have seen their star rise dramatically during the past decade ? Patterson Hood voted Fort Recovery his album of the year in 2006 and the music critics have always been gracious in their reviews. He’s obviously revered by other artists who queue up to play with him hence the Monsters Of Folk tour with heavyweights M.Ward, Jim James ( My Morning Jacket ), Connor Oberst and Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes this year and the recently released self- titled album with Jason Molina.
It’s really hard to put a finger on it but the evidence points to the fact that he’s always done it his way. He’s clearly very loyal to the other musicians in his band hence their remarkable longevity despite the absence of any commercial success and he’s probably aware of how many songwriters who make it big quickly, disappear at the same rate. The fact that he operates under three different guises doesn’t exactly enhance his chances of building band awareness either. I was hoping his recently released duo album with Jason Molina would give his much neglected profile a boost but unfortunately the tour has now been cancelled due to Molina’s health problems. While we all wish Molina a speedy recovery, let's hope the new decade brings Will Johnson the reward and recognition his music truly deserves.