Will Johnson’s New Paradigm

Song sage on baseball, house concerts, and wisdom from Neil Young

Will Johnson’s enthralled audiences since college in Denton. Now 44, he’s become a songwriter Jason Isbell and Patterson Hood quote. His new album Swan City Vampires is a masterpiece of folk, Americana, and punk rock. Its CD release happens today at Waterloo Records, 5pm.

A little to his surprise, Johnson’s becoming known for his baseball art. He finished his 200th piece last month. He started off making baseball player tribute pieces to hang on empty walls. Commissions soon followed, then art shows.

“The history of the game was equally compelling to me as the sport,” he explains. “I started messing around with paintings as a way to pay tribute to some of the old guard and lesser known players. Each piece I painted taught me something new, so I kept on.”

The local lights up about baseball and becomes animated on the subject. Johnson roots for the St. Louis Cardinals, who have the highest MLB stats this season. Asked about the I-70 World Series when the Kansas City Royals defeated the Cardinals in 1985, Johnson laughs.

“I would love it if that happens for home state sake,” he nods. “I’m not the kind of Cardinals fan that turns their back on the Royals. It’s been a Cinderella story for them this season and it’s fun to watch, but I wouldn’t mind exacting a little revenge from ’85.”

The baseball craze started when he was a kid in Kennett, Missouri, where Sheryl Crow and her sister were his childhood babysitters before his family moved to Killeen. Johnson took piano lessons from Crow’s mom, with whom he remains in contact.

“There wasn’t much else to do in Kennett other than play sports or get into trouble,” he says. “We were about three hours south of St. Louis, and those Cardinals teams of the Eighties had a big impact on the town. The radio calls of Jack Buck, the magnitude of Ozzie Smith, and the Cardinals’ World Series win in 1982 galvanized the whole thing for so many of us kids.

“There’s a rhythm, intensity, and mental stamina to the game that’s not really like any other sport, and that was deeply appealing to me as a kid. As Willie Mays said, ’It’s violence under wraps.’”

Make no mistake about Johnson’s primary focus, however. He recalls his mother making a lot of sacrifices for him. She bought him his first drum kit when he was 10 and lived with the boom of music blaring throughout the house.

“I remember sifting through my mom’s and my grandparents’ record collections when I was a kid. I was as fascinated with the artwork and visual effort that went into a record as I was the music itself. I’d sit on the floor, listen to stacks of records, and look through the artwork and liner notes.

“I wanted to know who all these musicians and songwriters were, what their lives were like, and where these records came from. It was a natural transition into wanting to play.”

The last few years, Johnson’s performed a series of house concerts, so his club gigs have decreased. This afternoon’s album release show at Waterloo is thus something of a rarity.

“The living room/alternate space touring came by recommendation from my manager Bob Andrews. I was at a point where I was really enjoying the rock shows with Centro-matic and Monsters of Folk, but I also had a notion to turn the whole touring thing on its ear and try something different from all that – something less conventional, and something that might blow up in my face.

“I fast became attracted to the way that it peeled things back to a raw form.

“I found that doing shows in that type of climate encouraged communication in the room, and it’s a direct route to fans. It eliminates the casual passerby, or the potential oversights of a promoter that may not be that invested in the show because they’ve got another production, or maybe a bigger paycheck happening across town.

“It’s largely word of mouth. And it’s not an anti-venue stance. House concerts open up the option to play in towns that might have fans but not necessarily a small listening room for quiet music. Each show is its own snowflake. There are no talkers at the bar, and there’s no flat-screen TV aglow with some game that no one in the room gives a shit about.”

The title of Johnson’s new disc, Swan City Vampires, was inspired by the imagery of threatening vampires and peaceful swans.

“I wanted the juxtaposition of tranquil and dangerous because of the songs,” he offers. “There are moments on the record that are significantly raw and uncomfortable, and there moments on the record that are subdued and peaceful.”

Becoming a father has been a powerful inspiration for him.

“It’s loosened my grip and made me more easygoing than I used to be. I think it’s given me some better perspective on a lot of what’s really important in this life, and inherently exposed a lot of the minutiae.”

Captivate the audience just once, show ’em how it’s done,” Johnson sang in his former band Centro-matic, which had a devout following. He led the band for 18 years and says the group’s farewell tour last winter was emotional, exhausting, reflective. and satisfying.

“There’s a certain weight to the feeling of ending something you and your friends put so much work into,” he says. “It was about as joyous a run of shows as I can remember being a part of. We took a lot of time with those set lists, and there was a specific finality to embodying those songs each night – knowing that the shows were numbered.

“The band was playing well, there was no drama, and it seemed like people still cared. We had it pretty good.”

Johnson recalls that Neil Young gave him the best musical advice he’s ever received.

“Young said, ‘Never be afraid of taking a chance on pissing off the fans.’ This can mean a number of things, but I took it as a notion to never be afraid to take big risks, or be uncomfortable in the creation of something new.”

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Will Johnson, Centro-matic, Monsters of Folk, Sheryl Crow, Neil Young

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