Louis Johnson’s bluesy Americana music is served up by way of his hard life led experiences balanced by the rich, soulful quality of his voice, a voice commanding and strong without resorting to theatrics. Staying true to his approach to life, Louis Johnson was determined to deliver the real deal in the recording of his new CD of 11 originals, Old Friend.Louis wanted the listener to hear how he sounds at a live performance, his honey tobacco smooth vocals accompanied only by his guitar and one or two side men – no bass, no drums – a straight forward, true grit delivery. What resulted is the perfect blend of a seasoned life and its story in song, accompanied by some of Austin’s finest musicians.
Louis Johnson’s life story is written in the lines in his face and in the lines of his songs. He shares in his lyrics that he “grew up fast, and hard, and somewhat bitter”. From hitch hiking as barely a teen during the Summer of Love to San Francisco from his hometown in Solano County, to being in the driver’s seat making runs to Juarez, Mexico from South Dakota, Louis was constantly on the run to rebel from his strict Baptist upbringing.
Both as passenger and driver, hitch hiking led him down roads less traveled. One hitch hiker he had picked up in his wanderings became his best man at his first wedding. Louis’ time in Deadwood, South Dakota, came by way of a recommendation from another hitch hiker he’d picked up in Minnesota, who told him of the money to be made mining in the Black Hills. Louis set out for there the next day, sight unseen.
It was there in Deadwood that Louis Johnson learned to ride bulls, was a miner at Homestake Gold Mine, and got the nick name “Cowboy” for shooting up mailboxes one drunken afternoon after being left on the side of the road. It was also there that he fell deeper in with trouble and ever deeper into blind addictions that led Louis back and forth from Deadwood to Juarez and a home base in El Paso. After enough scars, and with the sentencing from the El Paso judge to leave the state of Texas, Louis eventually traded routes and found himself on the road to recovery, seeking instead a clean and sober approach to dealing with his demons.
The recording of Louis Johnson’s Old Friend began on a stormy night in 2010 on the Alabama Gulf Coast. Louis spent a year and a half there away from what had previously been home for fourteen years in Austin, TX, playing the Alabama/Florida border coastal joints. With a sudden, seemingly endless, torrential downpour thwarting the plans one evening to get to Admiral Bean Studio behind the home of Anthony Crawford (Neil Young’s band mate), Crawford and Johnson decided to set up in Crawford’s living room and proceeded to record Louis’ guitar and vocals for the 11 songs in an hour and a half. Those guitar and vocal tracks are the unaltered one-take versions on the CD.
The songs were then taken to Austin, TX, first to Bradley Kopp’s Red Boot Ranch Studios where Kopp added his signature acoustic lead guitar sound to a few of them, then to Chris Gage’s MoonHouse Studios where Johnson recorded his 2004 debut CD, A Grain of Sand, a Collection of Mickey Newbury Songs (the CD was released on the MoonHouse label under the name Cowboy Johnson). Gage, Louis’ life long friend he met in South Dakota, added his magic to the tracks with piano, B3 organ, dobro, accordion, mandolin, and baritone guitar. Austin’s renowned trumpet player, Ephraim Owens, sweetened two tracks, and Phoebe Hunt’s fine fiddle work put the finishing touches on the one co-write on the album, “Is She Your Memory or Mine”, the song brought to Louis to finish with Jim Pasquale who had begun it with Mickey Newbury just before Newbury passed on in 2002.
Although he spent his youth running from his strict Baptist upbringing, the gospel Louis Johnson learned to sing in the church where his father preached and his mother played the piano, has served him righteously and his listeners reap the benefits. Now settled back at home in Austin, TX, the saying “you have to have lived it to sing it”, rings true in the bittersweet lines of Louis Johnson’s songs on Old Friend.