Joe Johnson has a lot of history on his hands. The former frontman for Manitou's dearly departed Creating a Newsense, Johnson comes from a long line of country musicians, including his grandfather BJ "The Deejay" Johnson, whose '50s radio show featured on-air guests like Loretta Lynn, Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubbs.
The latest chapter in the family legacy will unfold this Friday at the Springs' historic Lon Chaney Theater, with a performance timed to the release of A Time to Dance, Johnson's debut for the Haunted Windchimes' Blank-Tape Records label. The album brings together a dozen of Johnson's high, lonesome originals — sometimes wistful, often haunting, always lyrical — with stripped-down arrangements focusing on the talented artist's vocals and guitar.
Friday's show also features some of the album's guest musicians, including Changing Colors' Conor Bourgal, Creating a Newsense's Jason Gilmore, Broken Spokes' Josh DeSmidt and the Windchimes' Inaiah Lujan and Mike Clark.
Johnson grew up in Morgantown, a southern Mississippi community that was little more than a church, a general store and a handful of houses. "It had a population of about 450," he recalls, "and out of those 450, I think I mighta been related to 400 of them. That's the truth."
So the family tree was basically a stump?
"We're not that bad," says Johnson with a laugh. "But we're a big family, that's for sure."
While Johnson's album is engaging throughout, its most striking tracks are "The Narrows," an eerily beautiful song with harmonium accompaniment by Bourgal, and "Anna," a Jimmie Rodgers-inspired tune featuring an abbreviated yodel that Johnson prefers to think of as a "primeval moan."
Johnson says songs like "Samuel T. Bellingham," about a displaced country boy who ends up working on a Henry Ford production line, are loosely based on true stories.
"I'd been reading up on Bill Monroe and the birth of bluegrass, and I started to get into the stories of the farmers and woodsmen who moved to the industrial North due to land foreclosures, poverty, depression, all these things hitting at one time. And the way those guys coped with it was to get together on Saturday nights and play their mountain music. That's how they tried to reconnect with a piece of home that they had to leave behind."
For Johnson, those stories held a personal resonance. "They struck me on a whole lot of levels: on a political level, on a social economic level, on a personal level. You know, I left Mississippi, which had a lack of opportunity, and came out to Colorado trying to find it in another place. And the music that I make is recalling what I grew up with, you know, that piece of home."
In this week's other news, I managed to stumble upon a Pollstar listing for Mexican Institute of Sound at Armstrong Hall on June 6 — which got me thinking that maybe, just maybe, the World Music Series has booked its 2011 lineup. And sure enough, KRCC's Jeff Bieri confirms that, in addition to Instituto Mexicano del Sonido (aka Mexico City-based DJ/producer Camilo Lara), this year's series will include Ali Farka Touré cousin and collaborator Khaïra Arby on July 27, followed by Brazilian chanteuse Luisa Maita on Aug. 24.
That's all for now, other than to remind you about hip-hop genius Busdriver at the Black Sheep on Saturday, as well as the other fine shows you'll find on these pages.
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