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Momentum and the Mountainside Sound

Production guru Bob Johnston on Dylan and everything after

By Louis Black, Fri., Sept. 30, 2005

Photograph by John Wheat, courtesy of Harold 
Eggers
Photograph by John Wheat, courtesy of Harold Eggers

"Johnston had fire in his eyes. He had that thing that some people call 'Momentum.' You could see it in his face and he shared that fire, that spirit. Columbia's leading folk and country producer, he was born one hundred years too late. He should have been wearing a wide cape, a plumed hat, and riding with his sword held high. Johnston disregarded any warning that might get in his way. ... Johnston lived on low country barbecue, and he was all charm."

– Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One

Texas born and raised producer Bob Johnston is one of the quieter legends in the music business. Reluctant to blow his own horn, he'll just as determinedly undermine anyone else's attempts to do the same. Even though he boasts one of the most stunning track records of any producer, there are many who have produced a lot less of interest with a lot more renown.

Among the artists and records Johnston produced were seven for Bob Dylan, including Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, and New Morning. Bookends; Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme; and Sounds of Silence for Simon & Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen's Songs From a Room and Songs of Love and Hate, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, the Byrds' Dr. Byrds & Mr. Hyde, and Doug Kershaw's Louisiana Man. He produced albums for Marty Robbins, Loudon Wainwright III, Tracy Nelson, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Moby Grape, Wayne Toups, Carl Perkins, Billy Joe Shaver, and Hoyt Axton among many others.

Over the years he's worked with a number of Austin area artists with differing success. He produced the first four Michael Martin Murphey albums including Geronimo's Cadillac, Joe Ely's Down on the Drag, and efforts by Jimmy LaFave and Willie Nelson.


Johnston Meets Dylan

They weren't gonna let me work with Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel, even though I had requested to. Then John Hammond got involved. First thing I knew, I was walking into the studio. There was Dylan.

I walked out there, and said, "Bob, I'm Bob Johnston."

He said, "I'm Bob Dylan."

I said, "I know."

Shook hands with him. He looked up like he did on that western movie, like that, with that eye, like when he was a grocery clerk. Nicest person I ever met in my life.


Dylan in the Day, Paul Simon at Night

I have no idea what the first song I recorded with Dylan was. It was on Highway 61, but I wouldn't know what it was, because I had Simon at night, and Dylan in the day most of the time, or afternoon. I had 27 artists I was working with, the Byrds on the coast, Patti Page, and the ones in New York. I didn't know where I was. I knew I loved it, and I would sleep going out to Long Island in a limo, and fix breakfast for the kids. See them, turn around and sleep back into town. That's the sleep I got for two or three years.

I went over with Paul Simon and recorded the Sounds of Silence album. He was totally different! Dylan never did anything twice in his life! Nobody ever counted off for him. He'd get that guitar and go, "This goes C-R-G." I told everybody that I ever got with, if you quit, you're out of here, because you'll never hear that song again. He'll go get a pen and start playing, and you'll forget about that song, and it'll be the ending. I said, "We can overdub anybody but him, so don't anybody ever stop." And nobody really ever did.

The band he was using had done "Rolling Stone" together with Tom Wilson producing. They had the entire band – I didn't want to change the band, I had just come aboard.

All of a sudden, if you listen to what Dylan did before, everything changed. Listen to "Like a Rolling Stone," and then listen to everything else – everything was changing. That's what I've always been told. Everything on the record sounded different than what "Stone" had sounded like. And everything on Paul's, and everything from then on.

But I had been in a studio since I was four. I didn't go in there and say, "Well, what do you want me to do?" I went in there and messed with everybody's head, told everybody to do this and that.


Johnston vs. Wilson

"Johnston's sound is nearly the opposite of [producer Tom] Wilson's; the metal-on-metal screech of "Maggie's Farm" is the farthest thing from "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" or "Ballad of a Thin Man." Johnston's sound is not merely whole; song by song the sound is not the same, but it is always a thing in itself. There is a glow that seems to come from inside the music. It's what Johnston called "that Mountainside sound."

– Greil Marcus on the differences between Dylan's first producer Tom Wilson and Bob Johnston in Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads.


"Sounds of Silence'

We worked for I think six days hitting Coke bottles together for Paul Simon. All night long, click, click. Then he wanted to hear them back, and do that. He was a genius. He didn't need me in there.

Everybody needed me because of the sound and everything the way it was [back then]. He could've done it himself though. It wouldn't have been the same without me and Roy Halee, the engineer. I don't think everything would've been the same without me, because I just go by what happened.

But Simon would go. ... He might do a vocal for four days or something. I didn't care, because he was a genius.

But with Dylan, I'd go, "Alright, this is A-B-C!" All the musicians start looking around.

Anyway, now, people take two or three years to do a record sometimes. The main thing they do that for is because it's the only way to make any money. They don't make any money off the record company, so they make it there. But if you look back, Highway 61 came out, biggest record in the world, then six months later, Blonde on Blonde came out. Sounds of Silence came out, then six months later Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme came out. It was so much fun, and things were so great.


"Blonde on Blonde': "Rainy Day Women'

I think Dylan got a lot of Texas in him and in his music, that sense of happiness and joy. He was down there, man! That was Bob Dylan. He was the leader of everybody.

He was down there marching around the studio. I had everybody marching around in the studio, doing that song. And Dylan was the leader.

He first played me that song on the piano, and I said, "That sounds like the damn Salvation Army band!" He said, "Can you get one?"

I said, "Probably not – it's two o'clock in the morning – but let me see what I can do."

I called up Charlie McCoy, and he said, "I can wake up Wayne Butler. He plays trombone, and I can play trumpet."

I said, "That's all we need. We don't need a clarinet or anything else. Get the drum, all that stuff." Wayne Butler came down there, wiping his eyes.

Dylan said, "Well it goes like this ..." Nobody knew anything!

I said, "Get yourself a drum, Kenny!" He put his drum out there like that, and they were walking around yelling and singing, and that was it.

First, Dylan played a little bit on the piano. And they all marched around while he played. He said, "It goes C-R-G," and they were gone.

Nobody ever knew what Dylan was gonna do. When, how, where, what, why – anything. I used to laugh about it, because I'd see Al Kooper sitting there, trying to follow. ... They couldn't have any charts or anything, so they were following where he was putting his hand. Al Kooper, I think, used to call it the road map to hell! But it was so spontaneous.


Living in Austin

I moved to Austin at one point. I had some attorneys and accountants who didn't take care of business, so one day, the Feds knocked on my door. They took all my money, my cars, my home. Everything.

My family, we just scattered, because they're a real strong family. My old lady's been with me 43 years or something like that. She's the best in the world. Nobody could ever get in their way.

I told the Feds, "Get out of the way! Excuse me, I don't want you to stop, I just want you to move over and let us through." They did, so everything worked out right. I had an old yellow car I had hid away.

We just scattered, and for a while it was tough. I had to do a lot of shuffling around. I didn't want to go to a record company or anything like that to find work.

I moved a bunch of trees and did general odd jobs that come along, then worked up from there. But I came down here to Austin, and I really didn't have anything. I just wanted to see what the water was like.


Shotgun Willie and the Return of the IRS

Lived here about a year and a half, but the first one I saw was Willie. One day, he said, "We ought to have a company together."

I said, "That's great."

"You want to have this drawn up on paper, or shake hands?" he asked.

"Just shake hands," I said.

We shook, and he said "What do you want?"

I wanted access to his vaults.

He said, "Well you can have that."

I said, "Great, where's the key?"

I went out there with my son Andy and we started working. We started by bringing 2400 tapes down to DATs. Got everything down and finished.

Saturday morning, drinking a cup of coffee, there's a knock on the door. "We're the Federal Government, we're here to take all of Willie's stuff."

Two bands, I think, were rehearsing. The bands left. The Feds came over to me, and said, "You can come back in two weeks."

I said, "No, you people have already been through me. I don't even know Nelson really. These are my tapes, my guitars, and nobody's taking anything. Give me a chance to call my lawyer, and if you would, get a federal marshal out here. I'll be sitting in the chair over here."

For some strange reason, the guy said, "Well take your stuff and get on."

I left, went right over and knocked on Willie's door. I gave him a box of DATs. The next morning, he came out with this little picture of a truck and drawn on it, Who'll Buy My Memories: The IRS Tapes.

Willie gave me a co-producer credit. It wasn't me. I had nothing to do with anything! All we did was get everything together. He went through that stuff and picked everything out. The Feds had backed up a semi, and took everything out of his garage. Except what I had.

I only produced Willie on one song. Yeah, only on a song called "Nothing Cold as Ashes After the Fire's Gone," with Tracy Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, and Willie. It was a big, big record.

John Fisher was the A&R man. He was delighted and he called me, said "Get everything ready. Get ready to do an album, because it's gonna be a giant record."

He called me back that afternoon, crying, drunk. He had just been fired. Atlantic closed their office.


Michael Murphey and "Geronimo's Cadillac'

There was a painter, R.E. Calwell, who painted part of my house. Said "You have to hear Michael Murphey!"

"I don't want to. I'm too full up and all," was my answer.

He kept selling me, until finally I gave in. I said, "OK, I'll go to Austin." I flew to Austin, went down to this theatre. Michael Murphey introduced himself. He was always frantic, his eyes just frantic, like a slot machine. He said, "I'll play you a song."

"Great," I said.

Murphy got up there and started playing "Geronimo's Cadillac." He played about 45 seconds. I stood up, and just started to walk out. I thought I'd wait for him at the back. He said, "Hold on a minute, I've been rehearsing a long time, and working, all like this, and you're gonna listen to more than just one goddamn ... at least listen to one song."

"If you want to play any more of your songs, play it in Nashville when we record," I answered.

They drove up to Nashville, we went into the studio, and we made the Geronimo's Cadillac album in one night.

That whole album is great, "Crack Up in Los Cruces," "Rainbow Man"! One of the greatest songs that's been ignored is called "Calico Silver" on Geronimo's Cadillac. I'm gonna (re)do it one day because it's one of the greatest songs ever written. One day you'll hear it. ... Anyway, I made that record with him.

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