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Singer-songwriter, Dan Johnson's latest album is a superb example of homage and reverence for legendary artistic influences, brought together with the glue of distinct individualism and uniqueness.
Texas Country fans are falling in love with the resulting marriage of a straightforward approach to well crafted lyrics and a musical presence that fills out the shape of the sound in all the right places.
Johnson, whose prior work leaned more toward an acoustic, solo, Americana style, wanted to create a markedly hotter and harder driving electric sound with this, his first release with a full band. "My dad was a guitarist and loved Southern Rock, so I grew up with a lot of Allman Brothers and Skynyrd. I fell in love with the strength of instantly recognizable guitar licks from guys like Dickey Betts."
Johnson's lyrical influences shine throughout the album as well. The style is poignant and often emotionally moving, with sparing but meaningful use of metaphor and poetic color. "Every time I listen to a Kristofferson album, I think to myself, 'Oh that's where I got that sound.'"
Walt Wilkins, who Johnson credits as his primary inspiration and role model, teams up with him on the song "Troubadour's Prayer," a powerfully moving message, not only for those who pursue a career in music but for anyone who finds the courage to follow their dreams, despite the hardships they know lay before them. "A Place to Call Home," Johnson's six minute anthem (complete with string section) is a gripping story of gratitude to the love of his life and regularly leaves listeners in tears.
One of the greatest beauties of Texas Music is the latitude it gives artists to push the bounds of the genre, whether talking about pioneers like Steve Earle or Ray Wylie Hubbard or some of the amazing younger folks on the scene such as Band of Heathens or Uncle Lucius. "The genre is like a playground, and I absolutely love it," says Johnson. On artistic comparisons, he remarks, "I've had a lot of people tell me the music reminds them of Jason Boland, Cory Morrow, even Reckless Kelly, and that's just great by me." Johnson says it's a tremendous honor to be a part of the Texas music scene, the talent and beauty there is to be found everywhere.
The album is ten great songs, carved out of a substantial catalogue of work Johnson has accumulated over the years from solo shows and songwriting competitions. Several upbeat dance tunes are prime for two stepping crowds across Texas, rocking out to fast-paced clever lyrics, including the astounding seventy references from the Lone Star State, crafted together perfectly in the rapid fire song "This is how we Texas." Moving and emotional songs on love and loss feel like a personal conversation between the artist and the listener, digging into deep feelings, profound and universal. Darker songs explore themes of hardship and come from an autobiographical place of Johnson's struggle with relationships, the loss of his father at a young age, alcohol problems and considerable religious influence for the better and worse.
The recording sessions for the album were intense and demanding. The songs were recorded nearly entirely in a full band setting with guitarist John Carroll, drummer Mark Patterson, acoustic guitar by Chevy Dixon, keys by Ben Morgan, and fiddle by Adam Inmon. Vocalists on the album were Dan, Carley Retta-Faye duMenil, a founding member of the band, and newcomer Debi Lindsey. On slide guitar and bass was Corby Schaub, who produced the album as well.
Schaub happened upon the band playing in New Mexico last year. Johnson recounts, "He and Carley were talking after the show. She literally had to force me to go sit down and talk to him. He said we should come down to Austin and make an album with him. I actually just thought we were drunk talking, until I got back Monday and he had messaged me saying 'get down here and let's do this.'" The meeting was definitely a fortunate one for the band and for fans as well.
Texas music lovers should be on the lookout for more work from Johnson and the Salt Cedar Rebels. Catching their live show is a great treat as well. It is a high energy experience filled with a notable personal connection through lyrics, expert musicianship, and an exceptionally enjoyable presence. This band, their music, the album, and their touring show is what the Texas music scene is all about.