Baby Grant Johnson – Older than his nickname
Onstage at Mayslack’s, a trendy Northeast Minneapolis working-class bar known for its mouthwatering roast beef sandwiches, Baby Grant Johnson ends his acoustic blues-folk set with Lead Belly’s old gospel tune “Meetin’ At The Building”. His eyes tightly shut, guitar at his side and voice purely weathered, he keeps the beat by stomping the floor with his boot, radiating with the spirit of an old soul well beyond his 28 years.
Johnson’s passion for music began developed at the tender age of five, when his father took him to see Waylon Jennings perform during the classic outlaw-country days. After frequent outings to see a variety of folksingers including Tom Paxton, Dave Van Ronk and Koerner, Ray & Glover, his father took him to see Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. By a twist of fate, the Johnsons ended up in the elevator with the legendary bluesmen, and Terry let the eight-year-old boy — who already was well aware of Terry’s work with Lead Belly — play his harmonica.
That chance meeting influenced Johnson to develop his musical aspirations. At 12 he began, as he says, “really playing the guitar,” which led to a succession of stints in punk and rock ‘n’ roll bands. At present, he’s juggling three eclectic projects: the country-rockabilly Carpetbaggers, the rock ‘n’ roll based Slumper, and his solo blues-folk career as Baby Grant Johnson (he was nicknamed “Baby” by former Husker Du drummer Grant Hart).
Johnson describes himself simply as “a songster,” focusing on the collection and dissemination of songs. On his recent solo debut disc A Lonesome Road, he plays six- and twelve-string guitars and dobro on classics by Lefty Frizzell, Tommy Johnson, Lead Belly, George Jones and Sleepy John Estes, adding six of his own inspired tunes in the folk-country-blues tradition that nicely blend in with the smartly played covers.
But Johnson stresses that getting the right feel on A Lonesome Road was as important to him as selecting the songs. “What we were trying to capture was the sound of old blues on 78 RPMs, the way all the records I listen to and were my sources in a lot of cases for how the music sounded,” he explains. He achieved this ambiance with the help of producer Terry Katzman, owner of the mom-and-pop record store Garage D’Or, where Johnson is manager.
It is an understatement to say that the 28-going-on-78-year-old has made a name for himself in Minneapolis. As if three bands and the record-store job weren’t enough, he also co-writes a fanzine and has written scores for area plays and movies. And for a couple of cold ones, he’ll even fix your broken-down washing machine.