The Music of Justin Johnson
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
How did I hear about Justin Johnson? I was perusing my Facebook feed one day and came across a video one of my friends posted featuring a tall lanky guy playing a three-string shovel guitar. Think about that – a shovel…with three strings…seriously, think about that. And believe me when I say he was rocking out on this shovel. I decided to look into Justin Johnson some more and found another video. This time he was playing an ironing board – I kid you not! I had to know more about this artist.
Based out of Nashville, Tennessee, there doesn’t seem to be a stringed instrument that Justin Johnson can’t play. Whether performing music by his blues and Americana inspirations like Django Reinhardt, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Tony Rice, Doc Watson, David Grissman, Jerry Garcia, Leonard Cohen, Andreas Oberg, Muddy Waters, Lightning Hopkins or Robert Johnson, or creating his own sound, Justin puts forth his best effort and that is enough to make anyone who listens to him play a believer. Guitar World calls him a “must see act.” Ted Nugent calls him a “musical visionary.” John Carter Cash, son of Johnny and June Carter Cash and a musician and producer in his own right, has dubbed him an “American Master.” He’s been recognized as Slidestock International Slide Guitar Champion, created instructional books and DVDs, toured internationally, been endorsed by guitar builders worldwide and has had his original music licensed to notable companies.
After watching videos of Justin performing and listening to his music, I was hooked. Those who read my articles at G-POP.net may have noticed that I am a sucker for a well-played guitar, especially when the music performed is blues or funk. I decided to strike up a conversation with Justin Johnson and ask him for some demos I could use in a review of his work. He was very receptive and soon sent me more than just demos. I was the happy recipient of two albums: Smoke & Mirrors and If Walls Could Talk.
Smoke & Mirrors is a double album set released in March of 2014. The first CD of this debut album, Smoke, was recorded at the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. All of the music on this album is performed and arranged by Justin Johnson, no small feat considering all of the instruments used to create the eleven tracks, including a four-string resonator, a four-string Franken Bass, a six-string Ironing Board Lap Steel Guitar, various types of cigar box guitars, a five-string hubcap banjo, a Mississippi Mud Box and more. The booklet included with this CD explains the homebuilt roots guitars – how they were created and how they sound.
The music on Smoke has a polished style and I recognized a few of the songs, including Down by the Riverside, When the Saints Go Marching In, The House of the Rising Sun and Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground. But recognizing and really feeling these songs are two different things. Justin Johnson has performed and arranged these songs into something amazing that you have to hear to understand. The entire album isn’t just an amazing listening experience…it’s a feelings-fest. That sounds weird, so I’ll try to explain it. There are some musicians that perform music well and you say, “Man, that sounded great.” There are others you listen to and close your eyes, feeling the music as well as hearing it. Justin Johnson is one of those musicians.
The second CD in the set, Mirrors, was recorded at a Sharecroppers’ Shack in the Mississippi Delta and at the Crossroads. For this album, Justin Johnson performed songs using eight pre-World War II instruments procured from The Cigar Box Guitar Museum, including a Haitian Canjo, cigar box guitars and banjos, cigar box diddley bows, a cigar box lyre and a fretless cigar box ukulele. Songs on this album were chosen to represent the early 1900s era of blues. Some songs from Smoke were used and one can tell the difference in sound immediately. There is a raw quality to the recordings on Mirrors that can only come from the use of almost century-old instruments and the recording locales. I particularly enjoyed the rendition of Amazing Grace, my favorite gospel song.
Next, I listened to If Walls Could Talk, an album set that was recorded at Cash Cabin Studio and produced by John Carter Cash and Chuck Turner. Once again, all of the music was performed and arranged by Justin Johnson and the songs, with the exception of Summertime and We'll Meet Again, are all Justin Johnson originals. Instruments used for this album include acoustic guitars, mandolins, an upright bass, resonator guitars, cigar box guitars, a baritone ukulele, an electric guitar, a banjo, a mandocello, a baromitar (a six-string lap steel built from an 1840s weather barometer), a hubcap banjo and an 1878 Steinway Upright piano. Some of the instruments date back to the 1800s and some are unique signature models from the Cash family.
The music on this album is absolutely amazing. I love Summertime – especially the bluesy Janis Joplin version. Justin Johnson’s rendition is ten time better. Another favorite on this album is Snowy Morning Coming Down, inspired by a record-breaking Tennessee snowstorm and recorded in a reverb room for effect. Once again, the experience of If Walls Could Talk is more than just a listening experience. Closing your eyes, you can feel the music coursing through you like a living thing. I challenge anyone listening to this album to do so perfectly still – it can’t be done! You will find yourself either tapping a foot or a hand on a table or lap to time with the music.
Included in If Walls Could Talk is a highly informative booklet featuring the instruments and inspirations for each song, as well as photos of Justin Johnson with various instruments. But that’s not the best part – there is a DVD with behind the scenes footage of the recording sessions. This is a special treat for me. It is rare to get the opportunity to see an artist recording his work. In this case, it is extra special, because one single artist is performing every single instrument heard on this album. Montages are used so we can see Justin’s performance on each instrument in many of the songs on the album. I loved that you could tell Justin Johnson was enjoying himself playing each and every instrument. There’s even a bonus on this DVD: Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a song recorded live on the front porch of Cash Cabin Studio – amazing!
I had never heard of Justin Johnson prior to that Facebook post, but you can be sure I’ll be following him closely from now on. Any fan of guitars, whether acoustic, lap steel, electric or homemade will enjoy his music. From original songs to old favorites, Justin Johnson can play just about any stringed instrument, mixing blues, Americana and funk and doing it with style. You feel his music; you don’t just hear it and that’s what makes Justin Johnson an artist worth getting to know.