Johnny Dowd – Working man’s blues
Johnny Dowd makes his living hauling other people’s stuff. For more than 20 years, he’s been co-owner of Zolar Moving, a two-truck fleet based in Ithaca, New York. He gets to his office every morning by 8:30 a.m. and has a solid reputation among the local community. Not the kind of guy you’d expect to release an album full of songs about murder, sin, violence and retribution.
Those are the dominant themes of the starkly chilling Wrong Side Of Memphis, which documents Dowd talking and singing in a quavery drawl over a blend of Delta blues, old-time country and early rock ‘n’ roll. Add in the low-fi production values and a captivatingly simple cover photo, and the result is an arresting piece of American folk art.
“There’s a viewpoint that comes across on this CD,” Dowd says. “But if I have any views, it’s that everything seems so random in life — both the good and the bad. And with the minutes I have, it seems like I’m always thinking about the bad that happens. And bad, at its worst, is the kind of random violence like murder.”
Dowd wrote most of the songs on Wrong Side Of Memphis during the dark, dreary nights of early 1995, recording them in his four-track studio. He released it locally as a cassette later that year. For the CD version, Dowd added four more tracks and remixed the whole thing at The Shop, a recording studio owned by his Zolar partner, David Hinkle. “I redid a lot of the vocals,” says Dowd. “The CD’s sound isn’t as jarring as the cassette’s was.”
Last year, Dowd started sending the disc out to record labels, accompanied by a brief cover letter that included the memorable phrase, “If rock ‘n’ roll was a religion, I’d be a preacher in need of a church.” A few critics listened, and a steady stream of press gradually followed. After getting a few nibbles from record labels, including some majors, Dowd signed on with Checkered Past, which recently re-released Wrong Side Of Memphis. A publishing deal with Bug Music is also imminent. “Dan Bourgoise [head of Bug Music] said that sometimes he puts it on when people come in, just to irritate them,” Dowd says. “That’s a compliment, sort of.”
Dowd was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on March 29, 1948. His family then briefly moved to Memphis before settling in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, a small town (pop. 6,150) about 40 miles south of Oklahoma City. When his parents divorced, his mother, four sisters and Johnny moved back to Memphis, where he graduated high school in 1966. “But I still consider myself an Okie,” he says.
Raised a Presbyterian, Dowd was surrounded by religious influences growing up. “There were probably about 14 churches in Pauls Valley, and maybe nine were different sects of the Baptist church such as Free Will and Pentecostal,” he says. “Each thought the others were going straight to hell over a small issue. But that kind of passionate belief in something that’s totally stupid is the basis of rock ‘n’ roll to me. What is rock ‘n’ roll but that? It’s passion in something that’s basically simplistic and dumb.”
After spending a year at Syracuse University, Dowd was drafted into the army, where he spent two years in the infantry stationed in Berlin. When he returned, he was briefly married before bouncing around the country in a series of odd jobs. He eventually settled in Ithaca, where he’s been ever since.
One thing that doesn’t come across on Wrong Side Of Memphis is Dow’s utterly cool stage presence. He delights in leading his bands through off-the-cuff twists and turns onstage. He’ll quickly shift tempos or suddenly call for a solo from the band member least expecting it.
For several years, Dowd fronted Neon Baptist, a rootsy band that included his nephew, sister, Zolar partner Hinkle (who was married to his sister at the time), and another married couple. Neon Baptist released a cassette, Poverty House, in 1994, but disbanded shortly after.
Dowd’s current backing band includes drummer Brian Wilson, keyboardist Mike Edmondson, singer Kim Sherwood-Caso, and trumpeter Jesse Selengut. Previous members have included avant garde cello virtuoso Hank Roberts on jazzaphonic fiddle and trombone, and ex-Wayne/Jayne County guitarist Eliot Michael.
Dowd has hardly played outside of Tompkins County, but that may change soon. “For the past 20 years I’ve spent five hours a day writing song after song and wondering if I was insane because no one was hearing them,” he says. “Now it’s good that I’m getting others’ opinions.”
The grim characters who populate Wrong Side Of Memphis might give the impression that Dowd himself is a psycho, but nothing could be further from the truth. “One thing I would not want to happen is to come off as a crazy fruitcake,” he says. “I prize normality…I don’t want violence or strangeness in my life if I can help it. I won’t pursue it and I’ll avoid it. One reason I write about it so much is because I’m scared of it.
“Why do I write about death? If I can write about it, that means I’m not dead yet.”