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Eric Johnson 2002 Souvenir Photo
"Up From the Skies: Eric Johnson's Lifelong Quest"

by Raoul Hernandez

[Reprinted with permission from the Austin Chronicle]


"Voodoo Chile" has just crashed and burned.

"Well, I'm standing next to the mountain, chop it down with the edge of my hand." —Jimi Hendrix

It's been chopped all right, the song—not the mountain. One wah-wah intro, two verses and three minutes after the Jimi Hendrix classic roars to life, it nosedives into discordance and unintended chaos and crashes headlong into silence. Looking up from his Stratocaster with a puzzled expression on his boyish face, Eric Johnson grins sheepishly at the crowd of eight—who are nevertheless clapping madly—and then turns back to bandmates drummer Tommy Taylor and bassist Kyle Brock to share a laugh. The scene has the look and feel of a pre-show soundcheck, but it is not. It's Sunday night in Austin, and the guitarist has shown up unannounced for an impromptu set at the cavernous stone fortress known as Steamboat.

"Live For Today," another Hendrix cover, fares much better in Johnson's long flat hands, as does a version of the Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love" and Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door." And 35 minutes after the guitarist walks through the 'Boats tall, church-like doors carrying a sole amp, he carries it back out again and is gone. Save for the small handful of surprised patrons, who are now smiling over the $3 bargain they accidently stumbled on, no one is any wiser about what has taken place inside the Sixth Street guitar temple. Word of Johnson's appearance did not spread quickly on the street, nor did an excited congregation crowd through the doors to worship the quickest draw in Slinger City. For had they known, had they gotten the faintest whiff of the news, had Johnson's name been hinted at in even the tiniest lettering on the club's weekly Chronicle ad, they'd have been there in droves. For it's not every day that Johnson makes an appearance—announced or unannounced—at a local club, nor is it every day that he stumbles during a song, let alone cuts it short. Eric Johnson rarely makes mistakes; some would say the guitarist never, ever makes mistakes. Either way, this version of "Voodoo Chile" could well be the rarest Johnson performance of all.

"I totally blew that song," laughs Johnson a few weeks later, over a pre-studio session coffee out on Lake Austin. "As soon as I went into it, I said, 'I don't remember this.' I used to play it four, five years ago, but I totally forgot it." Pretty nonchalant for a musician known as a total and absolute perfectionist. Could this be the same guitarist who recorded the now-nearly platinum Ah Via Musicom three times over before he felt he had it right and is currently well into year two and the second from-scratch go-round for its long-awaited follow-up? The same fair-haired ax hero who consistently appears on the covers of those glossy guitar-porn magazines, fueling every six-string hopeful's fantasy of stardom? The same Strat-slinger who for years has been compared to Hendrix for his ability to create a sonic soundscape that is both classic and contemporary? The same master of the fretboard who, despite his influences, remains wholly unique and even counts among his many admirers such legendary forefathers as Chet Atkins, B.B. King, and Les Paul? Yes, one and the same: Enigmatic Johnson.

Perhaps no other Austin musician is as inscrutable or as elusive as Eric Johnson, one of the few local legends who was actually born in Austin and has lived his entire life within the city limits. He's also forged his sound here on stages past and present, recorded most if not all of his four albums here, and generally used Austin as a career launching pad. His bandmates Taylor and Brock live in Austin, as does Richard Mullen (the co-producer/engineer of his new album, Longpath Meadow), along with Johnson's road manager Joe Priesnitz. In fact, Joe Priesnitz Artist Management is run out of the Priesnitz household, which is just a few doors down from its principal client's home. Even the guitarist's major label liaison, Patrick Clifford, Capitol's vice president of A&R, wants to live in Austin. That Johnson is Austin through-and-through there is no doubt, so it's that much more puzzling that few people or fans in Austin—a town where most everyone is likely to know the color of your toothbrush minutes after you buy it—know anything about this world-class guitarist and musician.

By Johnson's own admission, the hazy mystique surrounding him started getting thick in 1977 when he signed on with Bill Ham and Lone Wolf Productions. "At that time," recalls Johnson, "we were playing the Armadillo [World Headquarters] and things were really building up. When I got signed, one of the first things they did was to pull me out of playing live to build the mystique, so to speak, which is a good idea in a way if you're going to follow it up with some plan. But if you're not there to follow it up, all of a sudden you're not playing for six months. We lost steam. We actually lost steam." For the next six years, as it turns out. And at that point in the guitarist's fast-blooming career, there was a lot of steam to lose.

Native Son, Natural Talent

Eric Johnson was born on August 17, 1954 at the old St. David's Hospital on 17th Street. The youngest of five children—three sisters and a brother—he was three years old when he first became aware of music through his father's ardent love for the classics and jazz. "He was always playing records," says Johnson of his father, a retired anesthesiologist now living in Houston. "And he liked all types of music too. Even when Elvis was getting big [around 1957], he liked Elvis and bough me an Elvis record. He had a positive embracing of that sort of thing. Both my parents loved music, so they tried to get us to take piano lessons and that kind of stuff." Piano lessons are the worst tragedy that can happen to many a rambunctious child, but not for Johnson, who started taking ivory instruction when he was five. He had wanted to start taking lessons two years earlier, but says he couldn't focus his concentration enough. Between piano lessons and a steady procession of family outings to see musicals such as South Pacific, Oklahoma, and The Sound of Music, Johnson says his musical foundation was being laid. By the age of eight, he had already begun writing his own songs.

"My piano teacher really stressed developing the ear," says Johnson, "You'd be sitting there where you couldn't see the piano [keys] and she'd hit a note and say, 'What note was that?' I always thought it was a fun little game, but I realize now that she was trying to have us develop perfect pitch and an ear so we could recognize the notes—which makes you more of an intuitive player. That's the sonic alphabet by which you can think about your own music instead of not being able to play anything until somebody puts a sheet of music in front of you." When Johnson started playing his own "silly little" melodies, he got nothing but encouragement (his teacher, Orville Wyss is thanked in the credits of Ah Via Musicom). That backfired somewhat when he started ad-libbing the pieces he was supposed to have memorized.

Today, though thankful for the ability to play by ear, he regrets not having learned to read sheet music better, because there's a wealth of classical music he's now struggling with. Instead of being able to sit down and study a Mozart piano concerto, Johnson has to peck it out one note at a time or buy the CD. Then again, he has little trouble picking out the chords in the bright Mozart sonata being played over out cafe's PA. "Like right there was a G-major chord, and that was a B-flat, and a G-7," he says humming along. "Certain notes have certain colors and you get to where you can hear them, and then you start trying to hear inversions until you can follow the inner melodies and hear the whole structure and architecture. But you have to work at it. I have to work at it."

But at age ten, working at classical sonatas was getting a bit dull, while jamming was getting, conversely, more exciting. Then one day, he came home to find his brother had formed a band and they too were jamming—only they were using guitars. It was 1964, and on these shores no one was hotter than the Beach Boys or the Ventures. When the younger Johnson heard his brother's band imitating that twangy, tremolo-laden surf sound of the Ventures, he flipped.

"I think I knew the moment I heard the sound of the electric guitar," says Johnson of that day—the day he decided he wanted to play guitar. "Nokie Edwards and the Ventures did it for me originally, because this was a little bit prior to the Yardbirds and Clapton, so what you were dealing with was either Beatles or Rolling Stones. I love the Beatles and [The Stones'] Brian Jones, but that was more just strumming, and I had a thirst for electric guitar, you know."

The following year, Johnson got his first guitar, and as the story goes with most guitarists, it wasn't long before everything else fell by the wayside. He quit the Boy Scouts, stopped taking piano lessons, and homework took a distant second to practicing guitar non-stop. By 13, he joined his first band, The Id ("I didn't even know what that word meant"), but was fired soon after when his family vacationed in Alaska and Johnson returned home to find that the rhythm guitarist had switched to lead in his absence. He was crushed, but quickly discovers that his talents were in demand as he cruised through a series of bands.

"I was getting decent at it," says Johnson, accessing his talent during that period. "I was valuable [to the bands I played with] in some ways, though I was hanging out with these older kids and they were like—and quite rightly so—'Why do we have to play with this punk kid who's only 13?' I remember being 13, 14, and falling asleep at gigs because it was 12:30–1am. I was so dedicated to doing the music thing that it kept me apart from the school thing and other stuff."

Looking back, Johnson says he substituted his instrument for many of the normal trappings of childhood. But then again, 1967 wasn't the year to choose playgrounds and school dances over music—especially if you had any interest at all in the electric guitar. 1967 was the year Jimi Hendrix released his debut album, Are You Experienced.

Electrifying Influences

Like Stevie Ray Vaughan (also born in 1954), Joe Satriani, and Steve Vai, Johnson instantly became part-and-parcel of a generation of guitarists who were just learning six-string speak when Hendrix came along, and, in the course of three years, completely redefined the language of the instrument. "When I first heard him, I couldn't grasp it," says Johnson, the awe of a 13-year-old still in his voice. "I thought, this is completely strange. I could tell he was good, but it was too over-my-head. I couldn't relate to it—it was too psychedelic. And then, as the months went on, I started going man, this is something!"

At first, Johnson didn't even attempt to play these new sounds. He just listened. And what intrigued his wasn't so much the notes or chords Hendrix was playing, but rather the way he played them. "It was the consciousness of how he played," stresses Johnson. "I could pick out the notes of 'Purple Haze,' but I could never sound that way."

When I suggest that Johnson and Vaughan are flip sides to the Hendrix coin—Johnson the more dreamy "Little Wing" to Vaughan's ferocious "Voodoo Chile" side—he doesn't necessarily disagree. "I always loved Stevie's rhythm and blues playing," says Johnson of Vaughan, with whom he played a handful of times and ran into often in the Seventies ("My girlfriend and his were best friends around that time.") "He always had that power that Hendrix had. And then there was that other side that Hendrix had, that poetic thing, the lyrical guitar runs...That's what was neat about Hendrix, his palette included all those things." He stops just short of saying that "that poetic thing" is what he strives for with every lick, though Johnson does admit that many of the hues in his own colorful palette come from Hendrix's musical masterpieces—as does a certain amount of the "personality" in his playing. Still the real challenge was finding his own voice and not mimicking Hendrix's.

During the later half of the Sixties and into the early part of the next decade, Johnson was not only spending a lot of time in his room in front of his record player listening to the blues, he was also spending a lot of time in the clubs watching notables such as Freddie King and Johnny Winter. He rattles off a list of long-gone hallmarks of the Austin club scene such as the Jade Room, Vulcan Gas Company, New Orleans Club, and the Armadillo as his favorites. And it wasn't just the road shows that caught his attention. Local guitarists like Johnny Richardson of Georgetown Medical Band, Tim Mings of New Atlantis, and John Staehaley of Chain Gang, Pumpkin, and Shepard's Bush had the young up-and-comer in complete awe.

For his part, Johnson was starting to experiment more and more with instrumental-based music, thanks in large part to his discovery of Jeff Beck, and his own musical alliance with Vince Mariani, a local who would soon become Johnson's most important early mentor and a musician he's worked with throughout his career: Mariani introduced Johnson to the public at large in the liner notes of Tones, as well as inspiring the album's title; he co-wrote "Desert Rose" from Ah Via Musicom and contributes a track to the new album.

Electromagnetic Jazz

It was in the midst of his musical education that his ultimate influence died. "A lot of the hope in the musical world left when Jimi [Hendrix] died," Johnson recalls sadly. "And there came a period when guitar became very unpopular and you had more bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake, & Palmer where the guitar was no longer at the forefront. At that point, I didn't know what the future [of the guitar] would be." Not only was Hendrix gone, Cream had disbanded the year before, Derek & the Dominoes would soon come and go like Halley's Comet, and by 1973, even Led Zeppelin had begun their long fossilizing process. Fortunately for Johnson, however, 1973 was also the year Chick Corea & Return to Forever released Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, which turned him on to the laser-sharp ax style forged by Corea's fellow Miles Davis band alumnus John McLaughlin. This was searing, take-no-prisoners jazz-rock, and it joined Beck's fusion tendencies with some of the more traditional jazz values Johnson had been absorbing through his father's musical tastes since childhood.

"That record was a radical departure for the time," asserts Johnson. "Country rock was becoming the thing, and I was like, 'Oh no, I don't want to do that.' I love Willie Nelson and everything, but [that material] wasn't challenging to me as a guitarist. So what do you do in the Seventies but this fusion thing, because that was featuring guitar. It was like going to school for me, too, because it got me back to listening to jazz records—studying them." The following year, Johnson was teaching courses in fusion via his own band, the Electromagnets, and, despite the fact that the Austin of 1974 was the cosmic cowboy mecca, the group was well-received locally. The road, on the other hand, wasn't quite as welcoming.

"People would almost run us out of town," recalls Johnson. "If you were from Texas at that time, they pretty much expected that you were doing the country thing. We went through a time when we wore cowboy boots just to rouse people. We'd walk out on stage wearing cowboy hats and start playing this Weather Report tune and just get the most severe notes passed up to the stage—life-threatening notes like, 'Change you set quick, or else.'" Eventually though, the Electromagnets found pockets of fans on both coasts and even released their own independent album, which was last seen fetching $50 at MusicMania. But despite a growing following, Johnson found the group's material becoming too complex and too "cerebral," and he compares their live performances to sticking one's finger in an AC outlet.

By 1976, a year before the Electromagnets broke up, Johnson had become convinced it was time to give vocals a try and went into the studio to cut some solo material. He was pleased enough with the results—"vocal pop stuff kind of reminiscent of what I do now"—to relegate the Electromagnets to the history books. After a six-month hiatus that saw Johnson teaching guitar to, among others, a pre Go-Go's Kathy Valentine ("That's my claim to fame. I taught Kathy Valentine how to play 'Purple Haze'"), he found himself, once again, with the Electromagnets rhythm section: drummer Bill Maddox and bassist Roscoe Beck. This time, however, they were doing it his way, with his material, and it wasn't fusion. Enter Bill Ham and Lone Wolf Productions.

Stepping Up to the Plate

When Johnson signed an exclusive six-year contract with Ham in 1977, not only was the guitarist joining a team that had brought the world that "little ol' band from Texas," ZZ Top, he was also joining a stable of several other hot local guitar studs: Stevie Ray Vaughan and Van Wilks. With demos in hand, a growing reputation as the new boy in Dodge, and Bill Ham at his back, Johnson seemed poised to take the next major step in career. Soon after, a debut album, Seven Worlds, was recorded, and it was time to sit back and field the offers. While the Joe Nick Patoski/Bill Crawford book Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire states that Ham was unable to get a label interested in the album, Johnson says there were offers on the table.

"Maybe it would have been better if they asked me about it," says a slightly annoyed Johnson of the book's assertions. "We had people offering smaller deals, but basically the people at Lone Wolf didn't want to do anything except a major label deal and the majors didn't want to do anything with it because they didn't think it would sell. So rather than saying that it couldn't be sold, it was a matter that it couldn't be sold in a mega-deal—which is a big difference." Lone Wolf Management Vice President J. W. Williams confirms this. "Eric was certainly entitled to the biggest deal that ever happened," he says. "We saw him as a man for all mediums, and we didn't think the album could miss so we went for the biggest deal possible. And remember in the Seventies there weren't a lot of smaller labels, but even in that case we didn't want him to get lost in the shuffle. We gave it our best shot. We simply weren't able to secure the deal we thought Eric was worth."

Johnson says we pushed for one of the smaller deals, liking the idea of starting from square one, but management didn't see it his way and in the end—legally—it wasn't his decision to make. The album sat on the shelf, and because Ham had pulled Johnson out of clubs to "build a mystique," so did the frustrated guitarist—for six years, as it turns out, since Johnson couldn't afford to buy out his contract with Ham. In that time, all the guitarist could do is look for someone to buy him out of his contract with Ham and play the occasional solo acoustic gig— as opposed to his previous crowds of 1,000-plus people at the Armadillo.

Asked whether he buys into the Vaughan book's theory that Ham wasn't able to let any of his other thoroughbreds outrun his number one moneymaker, ZZ Top, therefore purposely keeping himself and Vaughan down, Johnson says he's heard that theory before, but doesn't know what to make of it. Surely there's some bitterness about those six lost years? "It took me years to get over it," says Johnson without any perceptible signs of anger. "And finally I went, 'Man, it doesn't matter. Forget it' I don't want to carry that burden around. A healthy place for me is to detach, release it, and blow it off." Typical Johnson: as soft-spoken, polite, and free from "negativity" as the day is long. Not released, however, is Seven Worlds, which the hypercritical guitarist describes in halves: one "pretty good" and the other "pretty corny." Neither is likely to ever see the light of day.

Coming into the Light

It wasn't until 1984 that Johnson finally saw the light of day: the contract with Ham expired. Not about to sit around any longer, Johnson almost immediately landed a slot on Austin City Limits. Performing "Soulful Terrain" (which would later appears on Tones) as well as an acoustic tribute to Jimmy Reed and an early version of "Cliffs of Dover"—the beautifully simple but impossible-to-forget melody that's become his signature tune ("That's fine. I know it's kind of a little la-la-la-la song," says Johnson, "but what the heck…")—those years of pent-up frustration are evident on the taped segment, especially on the last song. One person impressed by Johnson's razor-sharp riffing was, of all people, Prince.

As the story goes, Prince saw the Austin City Limits show, which was actually aired in 1985, and immediately called his label Warner Bros. and told them they should sign the bolo-tied Texan. Within months, Johnson was signed to the Warner Bros. subsidiary Reprise—once Jimi Hendrix's label. "After that, Prince and I hung out constantly," laughs Johnson. "Just kidding. I've never verified that story. That's what I've heard. I think somebody at Warner told me that. Maybe David Tickle, the producer of Tones, told me that. He used to be Prince's live sound man." Whether the story is true or not, it's interesting to note that Prince protégés Wendy and Lisa, supply some uncredited backing vocals on Tones.

With a major label deal in hand, a new management company at his back—this time in the personage of Joe Priesnitz—Johnson was on his way. Well, not quite yet. Now he wanted to produce his record as well, but the label kept balking on the idea. "They were scared to death," recounts Johnson. "I kept going, 'Why don't you let me do it?' And they kept telling me, 'You've got to find a producer.' They refused to let me do it myself, so there was a long waiting period—a year or so."

Part of Johnson's problem with bringing in an outside producer was that all the candidates he interviewed wanted to pour him into the mold of other guitarists that had come before. Even Warner Bros. wanted to make him sound like someone else. He describes dozens of meetings where label executives would play Johnson an upcoming release and ask him what they thought of it. This translated to: Can you sound like that? "I would say, 'That's great, but it's not me,'" he recounts. "I didn't want to copy anyone else. Everything I've ever had a little bit of success with has been the stuff you don't do, like lots of instrumentals, longer songs, and making an album of all different types of music." Finally, however, both parties agreed on David Tickle, whose work on Split Enz's Wiatata had particularly impressed Johnson. Once that was decided, it took Tickle and Johnson—legendary for his snail's pace in the studio—only two months to record and mix Tones in its entirety.

First Album Blues

"Nowadays, it's like—what happened, what takes so long?" jokes Johnson, referring to his studio reputation. "I remember doing the record and always saying, 'Oh David, excuse me, can I re-do this part? Can I re-do that? And I think I could've done [the album] better, but David realized that we were working in a studio that was terribly expensive so we needed to be done. So, at some point you just have to go, 'Well, that's gonna have to work.'"

Famous last words. In any event (and despite some last minute editing on their part), Warner Bros. liked the record—not enough to promote it mind you, but enough to release it. Now it was up to Johnson to sell it city by city on the road. The only problem was that the record didn't hit the road with Johnson. Though out and supposedly in stores, Johnson himself could never find it. On tours with Blue Oyster Cult and Steve Morse (a longtime Johnson booster), Johnson was continually approached by fans enthused by his performances who could find neither hide nor hair of the album.

The guitarist heard this complaint everywhere he went. My own experience looking for the record matches Johnson's complaints. Attending college in Los Angeles when the record was released, my girlfriend at the time gushed over this great instrumental she was hearing on a local station, KNAC. On the basis of "Zap," the album's first single, which was nominated for a Grammy that year, we scoured the L.A. basin and Northern California looking for the album. I found it three years later on the eve of Ah Via Musicom's release. Promotion does not seem to have been Tones' strong point.

Despite rave reviews and guitar magazines falling all over themselves to praise Johnson, the album only sold some 50,000 units—respectable triple A numbers, but not good enough to stay in the majors. Warner Bros. promptly let his contract run out and didn't pick up his option.

Finally Free to Fly

By this time Johnson was in his early thirties and had been plugging away nearly 20 years with only one album to his name. To say he was frustrated with the situation is an understatement. But if his time with Ham had taught him one thing, it was that it's better to be free than bound and gagged by a bad contractual agreement. So he went shopping again, and decided to stay at the indie level when Cinema Records gave him carte blanche on record number two.

This was the chance Johnson had been waiting for his whole career. Once can almost imagine the sweet-natured guitarist with a dangerous gleam in his eye, washing his hands in the air, giggling, 'Oh boy, oh boy.' "'They said we like what you do, just do whatever you want,' says Johnson," and I went 'God, this is great. Here's my ticket to get to do whatever I want.'"

Halfway through the sessions though, Cinema lost its distribution deal with Capitol Records. Fortunately for Johnson, he had enough down on tape so that Capitol, which had an option on his contract, decided to pick up the record. They, too, left the guitarist alone, which at first may not have been such a good idea. "I was committed to doing the best job possible on the guitar parts and not leaving them until I got them right," explains Johnson. "So I literally did them over and over and over until they were right."

Three times over, by most accounts. "I agree that catching stuff on the first and second take [captures] that spontaneity," he says. "I agree with a lot of people that that's really better. But I haven't reached the point where I'm good enough at what I do where I can just play that way. That's why I did it over and over and over." Instead of the two or three months it took to complete Tones, Johnson—left to his own devices—took nearly 15 months of 14 hour days in the studio to finish Ah Via Musicom. Whereas he usually gets the basic tracks on the first or second take, not to mention the occasional solo, Johnson has been known to take days just miking his amp, which is to say he spends most of his time in the studio looking for the right sound, the perfect tone, and not just stacking more overdubs on a song than IHOP stacks pancakes—though certainly he does that as well.

Then again, if it ain't broke, don't fix it and Ah Via Musicom, which was released the first part of 1990, certainly did break—commercially, that is. Again, the rave reviews poured in, only this time so did the promotional support from Capitol. As a result, "Cliffs of Dover," "Righteous," "Trademark," and "High Landrons" all got considerable airplay and the album went gold (current sales hover around 800,000). Along the way, Tones was also rediscovered by fans of the second album, and today its sales near 400,000.
Finally, finally, finally Johnson was getting his due. No longer was he only worshipped by hometown fans, who had voted the guitarist into the Chronicle's Hall of Fame in 1982 and made him one of the most lauded multiple-category winners (alongside Joe Ely and Stevie Ray Vaughan) in the Austin Music Awards year after year. Nationwide, fans acknowledged the guitarist as a master of his instrument, and, along with Steve Vai, named Johnson the "Best Overall Guitarist" in the 1990 Guitar Player readers' poll—an honor the Austin dweller would handily win the next three years in a row. Musician magazine voted Johnson one of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of the 20th Century.

No more false starts. Johnson had finally found the arena where his music was being heard, appreciated, and compared to the output of his own heroes. He was also filling those arenas with fans, who were going crazy over the charismatic blond Texan. One tour with Joe Satriani, who opened the instrumental door for Johnson and others by proving the genre's commercial viability, also revealed that Johnson was better able to reproduce his recordings live. A Northern California date I caught found Johnson blowing Satriani off the stage—in the latter's hometown no less. In a subsequent interview, Satriani revealed to me that he found Johnson's playing remarkable: He'd watch Johnson's opening set from the wings each night, using the performance as a meditative preparation for his own set.

Another performance, this time at San Francisco's plush Warfield Theater, uncovered the fact that the more frustrated Johnson gets with his onstage sound, the more furious his music comes out—as witnessed by a harrowing version of Cream's "Politician," which saw the mild-mannered guitarist pushing away a non-functioning mike stand in disgust and tearing through the song in a musical rage.

A chat with his road manager, Ethridge Hill backstage at San Antonio's Sunken Gardens confirmed this dynamic. "He's rarely happy with his shows, and usually takes it out on the encore," notes Hill, shaking his head and motioning to Johnson's searing take on Hendrix's "Spanish Castle Magic."

But if Johnson is often displeased with his live shows, clearly his fans are not, as proved by rapturous receptions all along B.B. King's Blues Music Festival Tour last year. Except for the legendary bluesman himself, no one on the bill, which included Buddy Guy and Junior Walker, received the applause Johnson did, and there was no bigger Johnson fan than King himself, who brought Johnson out nightly to share an encore. Standing there in front of the young Texan with his hands on his hips, King regularly urged the audience to give it up for the guitarist and the guitarist to give it up musically for the audience. Reflecting on the experience, Johnson notes, "It feels good when you're able to hang out with one of your heroes and have him say, 'Hey, I enjoy what you do, be true to yourself and keep doing what you're doing.'"

And perhaps the ultimate accolade awarded to Johnson—though it's become fashionable in recent years to belittle its significance—was the Grammy he won for "Cliffs of Dover" in the Best Instrumental category in 1992 (Ah Via Musicom had lost out to the Vaughan Brothers' Family Style the year before in the Best Rock Instrumental slot). "I was totally surprised," says Johnson of his victory, for which he was not present. "I'd gone a couple times before, and you sit there for hours and hours looking at someone's $1,600 tux suit, while you look like Jethro Bodine. It's like, 'I gotta get outta here.' You can't compete with those people. You go to the rest rooms and these people bring in their bags with blow-dryers, mascara—they look like they're fresh off a movie set."

The Next Giant Step

Yet after the awards, the album sales certifications, and the successful tours, there comes, inevitably, the day when the artist has to follow up one successful album with another. This is what Johnson has been working on for the past year and a half. Titled Longpath Meadow (from a poem in Ah Via Musicom's liner notes), the new album will be comprised of two volumes, one to be released sometime next year and the second half sometime after that.

A recent sampling of some of the album's tunes for Johnson's A&R liaison at Capitol, Patrick Clifford—whose past signings include Austin's Wagoneers—found older tunes such as "Manhattan" and "Pavilion," slated for the album. Both songs, along with "SRV," an instrumental tribute to his departed friend that is sure to enchant anyone who liked "Cliffs of Dover," have been part of Johnson's live repertoire for some time. New tunes, such as "Camel's Night Out," penned by bassist Kyle Brock, and "Lonely In the Night" co-written by Vince Mariani are also in the works for the new album, which Johnson says is, unsurprisingly, over budget and behind schedule.

"The thing that gets me more than the money is the time factor," says Johnson, confronting criticism that he takes too long in the studio. "I realize I take too long...Well, I won't say, 'I take too long,' because that's like saying 'would' and 'should.' As far as my own agenda, I know I need to work on that.

"But take people like Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel. They take two to four years to make a record. You also have to enter the factor that there's other stuff to do in life besides records. There's been a lot going on in my life besides making records, which is true of anybody. But I think it weighs on me, just because I know it would be healthier to get to a point where it isn't so much that way."

It's this time in the studio that also keeps the guitarist out of local clubs, he says. He'd like nothing better than to put together a part-time blues band with a female vocalist and just jam—like the night he slid onstage at Antone's and played Slim Harpo's "Hip Shake" with Jimmie Vaughan and Lou Ann Barton. He'd also like to do a one-off country record, but there simply aren't enough hours in the day—especially with the problems he's encountered recording the new album.

The largest and most obvious stumbling block in the recording of Longpath Meadow—or Super Longpath Meadow as Johnson likes to joke—is that he recorded the entire album in L.A. soon after the two-year Ah Via Musicom tour ended, only to come home and find that it was all "rubbish."

"I literally all but threw it into the trash," he says. "And it was a vast amount of money to just throw away, but I had to be honest with myself: Is this something that I'd be proud of? Is this something that people who buy my records would want to hear? No, they wouldn't. This does not have integrity, so I just kinda swallowed my pride, threw it in the trash, and started again."

A subtler problem, however, has been in the sound Johnson has been striving for on the new record. Like most smart musicians he realizes he can't simply reproduce the last album and be done with it. He wants to take his sound to the next level. "To me, Ah Via Musicom is a little stiff as far as the feel of everything," he reveals, "and that's where we were at the time. [On Longpath Meadow] I'd like to have a little more relaxed, inviting feel in the groove. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that my signature feel is a little tight—a little up on the beat. And I thought, okay, I just want more of a pocket backbeat thing. I didn't realize I'm having to re-learn rhythm. And I just can't do it. It's been terribly frustrating."

Onward and Upward

But the demos for the new album do indeed reveal a more relaxed groove, a sound that is even more ethereal than that of his first two albums. Johnson attributes this to the fact that in recent years he's spent more time listening to classical pianists than to the rising hotshot guitarists. "Because I can't find on guitar where I'd like to be tomorrow as a musician, my best bet is listening to other instruments," he explains. "I like some sax stuff and lots of piano stuff. The piano has just a great wealth for me to listen to—violins too, and especially violas. Violas are kinda hip, because they're more in the scale of what could typically be transferred to guitar. I can close my eyes sometimes and pretend a violist is a guitarist: 'God, that's the best tone I've ever heard.' Then I come back to reality." And that reality is that Johnson still can't recreate the sounds he hears in his head.

"The playing I did on the last record is the best that I can do," he says with a measure of frustration. "I beat myself to death to get that. And somebody will say, 'Oh, that's pretty good.' I'll be honest with the public and myself: I killed myself to play that good, and the reality is that I'm not necessarily that great. I have to work really hard to get that good. I'm not Itzhak Perlman. I've seen him in concert and bam, jeez, that's a whole 'nother genre of musician. I've got to work so hard to get my guitar sound on tape to sound like what I hear in my head. It doesn't just happen. I wish I could say I just walk into the studio, plug in, and that's me. But it's not. I'm a mile away from that. I've got to struggle up the side of a cliff to get that sound and playing."

And if he's really miles away from what he hears in his head, then the sky is the limit for Eric Johnson, whose music, even now, is on a spiritual plane far above that of most musicians. To watch the slight guitarist on stage, hunched intently over his Strat, his boots tap-dancing on the large effects board at his feet as his hands pick and slide over the taut steel strings, is to know Johnson is in another dimension when he's playing. To hear his high, piercing notes and soaring melodies stretch for the heavens and fill the air around you with a rainbow palette of tones is to be transported to that other dimension—a higher plane—yourself: A plane that is not necessarily dictated by virtuosity or fame; rather, a plane, where music comes, to quote Jimi Hendrix, up from the skies.

 

EJ's going on an acoustic and piano tour, will you join him?

Eric Johnson  2002 Souvenir Photo

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