Crazed Geetar by a Southern Hipster

Guitarist Evan Johns

"When it gits down to it, I play music. That's what I do. I can't ever remember not playin' I mean, I was in bands in fifth grade! I guess I started around fourth grade." "How old were you then? Eight or nine years old?" "Sumpthin' like 'at." Evan Johns, who turns 39 on July 12, is off and philosophizing in the South Austin rental house he's occupied for the past three years. Since picking up his father's guitar during his Virginia childhood, Johns has played in countless bands and on an equal number of records. Following his early Eighties relocation to Austin to be a LeRoi Bro., Johns has racked up a number of those releases as leader of the H-Bombs, all the while collaborating with everyone from Eugene Chadbourne to Canned Heat's Henry Vestine. Lately, he's been seen making banshee propeller noises with the Gay Sportscasters. "Easiest band I've ever been in," Johns grins, reaching across his coffee table. "All I gotta do is put on muh weddin' rang!" he announces, flashing a bottleneck slide.

"This is a good music house," Johns remarks, gazing at the fading, off-white walls hosting a mini-hall-of-fame of autographed ephemera from heads of state, colleagues (an inscribed poster of deceased pal Danny Gatton holds a particular place of honor), and heroes ("I didn't have Les Paul sign my guitar, 'cuz I hear he don't sign Fenders!"). "I've written more songs here than in any other house. There's been a couple [of houses] that have been real duds. I like this house," he adds, walking across the room, "cause you can pee off the front porch." The door slams behind Johns as he loosens his fly and proceeds to water the lawn.

Evan Johns has been described as "a coot who isn't old," looks more like a truck-driver version of Ferlin Husky as he ages, and might be the most eloquent Southern hipster you've met. He's also more a "guitar hero" than any nameable local Strat mechanic. "Evan is the most crazed guitar player," says Mick Buck of Blind Willie's Johnson. "I mean, he just does somecrazy shit!" Wanabees guitarist Kevin Carney says, "From when he got in town and started playing with the LeRoi Bros., he sounded like he came straight from the garage, but still able to really play. He sounded like he was justbeating on it! And he was! Back then, he just looked to me like John Wayne if he played guitar."

John Wayne as a garage virtuoso? Across every H-Bombs LP, Johns has jumped from Chuck Berry choogles to honky-tonk weepers to mambos to the thickest Louisiana swamp rot, even uncorking a flat- out punk raver called "Gonna Get A New One." And he's done so with aplomb, intensity, and the most mind- boggling, idiosyncratic, damn- near poetic of guitar signatures. Blame it on growing up in D.C., where Johns was steeped in one of the richest and most diverse of local guitar traditions. Link Wray, the father of the power chord, "grew up right across the river" from Johns. D.C. also spawned Roys Clark and Buchanan, Gatton, and classical demon Charlie Byrd. "The list goes on and on!" says Johns. "There's a whole buncha fuckin' fabulous players up there that nobody's ever heard of! But I thought that was normal. Every town had a buncha guys that were playing guitar, y'know? Well, they do, but not like up there. There's a tradition up there, and everybody plays differently."

But as legendary as Johns' chops and his eclecticism have been, so has his fondness for drink. The damage to his system has been speaking quite audibly to Johns - who was fresh from detox when we spoke, and boasting of being "sober for weeks, and proud!" "That's been attended to," replies Johns when asked of his battle with alcohol. "I gotta case o' beer in there. Been in there since Thursday. I just can't do it. I might have two tonight, but the way I used to, I just drank beer if I was awake! For a quarter of a century! It don't work 'at way! The body ain't cut out for that shit, nobody's [is]! One time, I went 11 days without eatin'. That's the longest I remember. Can you dig that? That is bad for ya! Jest booze fuel! Always happens after these damn divorces!"

However, ask Johns if at times he was his own worst enemy, he'll deny it without hesitation. "Naw! I like what a buddy of mine said. He was ragging on me, and he said, `Everything you've accomplished. you've accomplished in spite of yourself!' I'm not my own worst enemy, shit! Naw, I could blame that on anybody! Fuck a buncha blame! [That's] looking backwards!" he snorts.

Actually, more damaging to Johns and his career than booze was a two- year string of health problems, the most severe of which was cataracts, which Johns had removed not long ago. "Y'know, I fucked my shoulder up and my hip because of my vision. I was really laid up. See, my vision got so bad... Christ! I was at my girlfriend's house one night, reached in the refrigerator, and I thought it was milk. Bottom's up, and it was flea dip!!! Labeled, in magic marker, boldly! And I couldn't read it!

"I Called Poison Control: `What's with the flea dip? You pukin'?' `Yeah! All over the fuckin' house!,' I yelled. `Whaddaya chasing this flea dip with?' An' I said, `Beer!' An' he said, `Well, don't tell anybody, but that's about the best. It ain't gonna hurt ya. You won't have any fleas in your stomach! So, just keep chugging 'em and keep on pukin!'

"I couldn't see. Ya lose it slow. Ya kinda compensate at first, then your friends start seeing ya walk into shit. It looked bad, too. I mean, if you have a reputation as a drinker..." That may be over with, however. Johns is sober and itching to get back into action. A live album, Burnin' Down the Barn, is out on Only Boy records. Cut last Labor Day weekend at the Hole in the Wall on a Sony Walkman, Johns jokes, "I've made some records for next to nothing, but in 1995, I broke my all- time record: That one cost like two dollars! But it sounds good, you can hear all the cymbals and shit. We just EQ'ed it. We got the test- pressing back, and it was right on the money.

"I gotta make another studio record, though. I got all these original songs. I haven't done my own studio album since '91. But I'm fit to go play, go anywhere. Get me three dudes, throw 'em in the truck, and hit it! Go out there and tear it up!

"When it gits down to it, I play music. I'll probably always play music. The only thing everybody likes - even fuckin' murderers and shit - they like some particular kinda music. There's always somebody knocking on the door. I don't ever have an inactive month. And I love playing. Somebody's always callin' up, so it'll always be that way if I make myself available. Yeah, I'll probably be some old guy playing, if I live that long.

"And I will. I will." n

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