While listening to The Other Side, the fine new album from emerging country rock singer/songwriter Eldon Johnson, I began to think back about what I found interesting about country music when I was younger and why I despise a lot of it now. Country music played a big part of my childhood and was the catalyst for some of the best times of my younger years. My parents were big fans of country, though I must say my dad was (and continues to be) very open to all sorts of music, something I admire and strive for myself. My mom was a little different and pretty much hated the “noise” of most rock and roll and thought the lyrics mostly nonsense but loved country music as most songs tended to be stories about life. Now, I understand country and rock and roll are pretty much the same. Sure, country came first – but I love my rock and roll and most country music on the radio sounds like the Eagles anyway so what’s the difference really? Y’know? As a child, well, that’s another story.
For me, like most children, Saturdays were very special. Not only did they mean not having to wake up for school, but it also meant being able to spend time with my father. During the week my dad was pretty much a non-entity to me. Not that he wasn’t around, but I was a late-in-life child and my father was in his early forties by the time I was born. He had a decent job at the plant where he worked and he had been there for many years and was in his working prime. Consequently, whenever my father was offered the chance at working overtime hours, he took them as his pay was quite good for the time. Many nights he came home probably only an hour or so before my bedtime, then, by the time he cleaned up and ate, I was about to go to bed and begin yet another day of pretty much the same routine. But Saturdays were different. My dad and I would have lunch together, usually he would run to K-mart and buy us a couple of submarines from their deli and bring them home so we could eat and watch some college football. Later, he would drive me to the mall or do something else to hang out. Later in the evening, after dinner, we would sit onm the couch and be able to watch TV together and talk. One of our favorite shows was Hee-Haw. For those who don’t remember, Hee Haw was a very corny syndicated country-music based variety show starring the legendary Buck Owens and super guitar picker Roy Clark. My dad and I seemed to get a huge kick not only from the grade-school level jokes, but also the music which was performed not only by Owens and Clark but some of the most important and popular country music stars of the day. While I liked rock music most, I enjoyed the show and country music in general through my dad’s affection for it. I learned much about the style and the history and the talent needed to perform great country music which would serve me well later on when I would reconsider the genre’s greatness after discovering bands like Uncle Tupelo, Blue Rodeo and The Jayhawks and put it in it’s rightful position of one of the most important American music forms ever created. Rock and roll meets country and has a baby. One ugly kid, sure, but there you go. There would be no rock and roll without country, okay? Hank Williams proved that. Let’s just get that straight.
But it took me a while to figure it out, unlike Johnson – who sings like he has always known he wanted to pursue a career in country music. For me, it took many years spent meandering around blues purism and Top-40 pop with sideroads into New Wave and Old Soul, before I began to recognize the pure country sound in bands like Uncle Tupelo and singers like Ricky Scaggs and Rodney Crowell and how artists like these differed from what was usually played on country radio. Sure Crowell and Skaggs scored some hits for a time, but soon they were pretty much kicked off the airwaves. I always assumed it was because they had too much talent. The poor bands like Tupelo and their offshoots and co-conspirators never had a chance. To admit liking punk music and rock as much as country and then combining them was only allowed for one artist: Garth Brooks, and then he was sort of the pabulum fed to people who wanted to think he was special. One maverick was all Nashville would allow, yet he wasn’t as much a maverick as one who knew how to market the concept. Brooks played it as safe as any Diffie or Lawrence with “rockandroll” styled concerts which were choreographed right down to the last bead of sweat. From listening to this CD, you can tell Johnson actually feels it. He may not have all the pieces exactly in place, but you can tell he’s not faking or playing along. He may or may not make the impact Brooks has, but he’s not playing to the crowd. What you hear is Johnson, one hundred percent.
The first song, “35”, is a quiet acoustic-guitar-based song which Johnson manages to sing quite well. The song serves as a perfect introduction for the album (and for Johnson as an artist) as it shows Johnson has a great voice, probably much better for the country idiom than for rock, let’s say, but really just a solid voice that is showcased very well by Johnson’s co-producer Darin Karnes. I could definitely hear this song, or at least, his voice, on my local country station singing his songs. It’s a very solid track and well-written, which is to say, very heartfelt without getting overly sappy or maudlin. The second song “Gonna Pull Up My Roots” is a much more rocking tune, though when I say rocking, I mean rocking in a country way. Great production again, and I’ll quit saying that for each song as it’s becoming obvious now that the production is top notch. This stuff really sounds radio ready and it bodes well for Johnson as he’s probably got one of the best vocal showcases he would ever get for being an indie artist. He’s gone all out to get the right sound. The song is catchy as hell, and Johnson seems like he’s having fun singing this song about taking a chance and moving on to better things in life by changing his surroundings and his old habits. Great stuff and a song I would recommend as a single to radio if I were a part of Johnson’s team.
The next song, “The Other Side,” is a more bluesy song, beginning with just acoustic guitar and Johnson’s voice but then the band kicks in and it starts getting good. Not as good as the other two songs, mind you, and this is the weakest of the three, but still not bad at all, in my opinion. Coming up next is Ride and it’s another solid country rocker in a mid-tempo vein with a solid chorus. Great driving song, and a song which I am pretty sure would be popular if radio were to take a chance on it. Hot guitar licks on this one. Right after an applause-filled buffer track (one of several buffer tracks Johnson uses to set up his songs) comes “Tennessee Star”, a more bluesy rocker with some slide guitar and sounding reminiscent of ol’ Bocephus, though not so much in the vocals as in the sound of the track and the swagger with which Johnson sings.
The slower, more acoustic-based “Eye To Eye” comes next, and is one of those country guy singing about his kid (or himself as a kid) songs which is sentimental and is written purely for a hit towards the women market who love this kind of softie stuff. I don’t particularly care for this type of song, but Johnson sounds as good as any I’ve heard doing one and the song holds up so who am I to judge? Maybe it’ll hit for him. The next song, “Back Side of The Storm”, is a very slow acoustic style song which I am assuming from the title and lyrics is really about a break-up or at least, rocky relationship stuff, written in an allegory of a vicious storm. Not bad, but now there have been several slower-type songs in a row and the mood of the record is starting to drag. Hopefully the next song will have some pep to it.
Well, “6-Foot Blues” is not a real fast one, but a decent country-style Bocephus-kind -of-blues song which is made to sound as if you are listening to the song on an old scratchy 78 until the second verse kicks in and hi-fidelity is back. Great gimmick, but something that most likely would not work on radio, though for an album is a neat little trick and the song revisits the trick at the very end. The song “Stay” is next and is kind of slow, just guitar, mandolin and Johnson’s voice for the most part, keeping it simple – which has worked for this album so far so why change it now? Great stuff, though the constant run of slow material is giving my ears a little bit of sameness-fatigue. “Come Back To Me” is up next, another slow-burner about lost love. While I am liking what he does here, I am now wishing Johnson had someone a little more savvy sequence the album a little better and maybe asked him to record another rocker or two to offset the slower stuff. I do respect Johnson doing this on his own though, and realize he probably didn’t have anyone helping him with this aspect. This is still a very fine album, but at this point I find myself realizing I would skip a lot of these songs in order to play a few more fast ones. Ah, cool! “Solitaire” is the next one and it throttles up the heebie-jeebies a little bit and shows Johnson still has some energy left in him. Good song!
“Tightrope”, the next song, is even faster! Written in the vein of a positive message song about chasing your dream and doing your best and all that. Decent song with a great chorus. Again, radio tune! Good guitar work that sounds something like what U2’s Edge would play if he were a country guitarist instead of a rock guitar god. Interesting hearing U2-style riffs in a country context. “Notcher Man” is up next, sounding a bit like a comedy love song with that classic Nashville chorus punchline. “The Pieces of Me” returns to the slower stuff, a quiet country song….the last song “Time After Time” is a version of the classic Cyndi Lauper song and the only cover on this CD. Decent country version which makes me wonder why the song hasn’t been recorded before by a country artist. Great tune for radio – mostly acoustic the way Johnson does it, which pretty much matches Lauper’s version as well. Good stuff, and although the album dragged in thew middle, I am impressed with Johnson’s talent.
I’ll tell you, this is a very good album and one which deserves some love from country radio and country music fans (rock fans too) as it has enviable production values and Johnson has a great voice. Though it isn’t the old-style country I tend to like best, it’s as credible as whatever is going around Nashville these days. Though I often don’t like what I hear on country radio, I continue to listen for something that gives me the rush of what I felt when watching those legends when I was young and occasionally something hits me square in the solar plexus and reminds me of the true talent and originality I used to hear. I would be lying if I said Johnson fits that mold completely. He’s not arrived at a total identity yet, if that makes sinse, and he will need some refining as he finds himself over the next few years. But the voice is definitely there and the songwriting is close. The true test will come when Johnson decides to do what he needs to do to differentiate himself from the pack. Then we’ll see what he really has. Right now, he’s walking the line, as Johnny Cash would say. He walks it good. But can he make his own line as the best have done in the past?