How does a kid leave a small New England town, a year out of high school, with absolutely no music industry connections, find his way to the heartbeat of the South and play guitar alongside some of its best-known musicians? Says Nick Johnson: “Never, ever think of failure as an option.”
The Massachusetts native came to Atlanta in 2007 and has performed with such musical masters as Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes and Oteil Burbridge of the Allman Brothers Band; Colonel Bruce Hampton; Jimmy Herring of Widespread Panic; Bonnie Raitt; Grant Green Jr.; and Yonrico Scott of the Derek Trucks Band, to name a few, all before his 26th birthday.
In Atlanta, Johnson fell under the wing of Hampton, who has a history of mentoring young musicians, and quickly gained a reputation as “the young guitar player to watch.” Today he’s a mainstay in the band of Randall Bramblett, the noted songwriter and multi-instrumentalist based in Athens.
ArtsATL recently sat down with Johnson to discuss his music — the only thing he ever considered doing — and how it led him to Atlanta.
ArtsATL: You grew up in a town with a population of under 20,000. Tell us a bit about that and your upbringing.
Nick Johnson: I’m from this tiny, obscure place in Massachusetts, a town called Rockland.
ArtsATL: Now that’s a fitting name for a musician’s hometown.
Johnson: Indeed. We call it Rock Vegas [chuckles]. It was a good place to grow up. There wasn’t a lot of money being made in my family, but everyone worked hard. I come from a pretty modest family.
ArtsATL: Who introduced you to music?
Johnson: My family. Music was just always around us. My mom and aunt sang, my grandmother played organ in the church for over 45 years, my great-grandmother and great aunts played piano. And I had very young parents; my mom was always listening to U2, Genesis, Prince, then later, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains. I had favorite bands by the time I was six years old and could sing all the words to all their songs.
I also had an uncle who was about 10 years older than my mother, who grew up in the 1970s. He introduced me and my cousin to vinyl, and bands like the Allman Brothers and Queen and all the music that was before my mom’s time. I was lucky and got exposed to that great music. That same uncle also started taking me and my cousin to concerts.
ArtsATL: What was your first concert?
Johnson: Jethro Tull, second grade.
ArtsATL: That’s a great one.
Johnson: Yes, it was.
ArtsATL: How did a guitar find its way into your arms?
Johnson: Before I had an instrument, I knew I wanted to play something. As a little kid I’d already been having concerts with a tennis racket in the basement. I started getting catalogs and circling the drum set and the guitar. Of course I couldn’t afford any of it.
You start on whatever is around, whatever you can get your hands on. I was 10 or 11 when I picked up a relative’s electric guitar he had given up on. Then, a year later, when I was 12, I started playing all the time — taking lessons, and also trying to sound like all the songs I listened to all the time.
ArtsATL: Were you spinning your uncle’s vinyl?
Johnson: No, I was practicing mostly to my CDs back then. But now I have all this vinyl, which I love because it’s totally about the experience. I mean, number one, you have to get up every 20 minutes to flip it. It’s not like putting the iPod on shuffle and then three hours go by and you’ve cleaned the entire house or else you haven’t moved off the sofa at all [chuckles]. It’s interactive. You hear a track and you might say to yourself, wow, I wonder who played that bass or who was on drums. Most of that can be found pretty easily in the liner notes of the vinyl. You just can’t say the same of iPod downloads.
ArtsATL: You won the prestigious Louis Armstrong Jazz Award in high school. How did that come about?
Johnson: I was kind of a loner in high school, but a girlfriend of mine talked me into joining the band in my sophomore year — they needed a guitarist. There were a lot of kids who really didn’t like to improvise and preferred to stick with the written music. I didn’t mind trying to do that, and the band leader appreciated that in me. Let’s just say I was obliged to take an improvised solo whenever the band leader would point at me, and he did, often [chuckles]. But I’m really glad I did that now. That all led to me winning the award in high school.
ArtsATL: Who is your top guitar influence?
Johnson: What made me decide to seriously pursue playing guitar as a living was seeing Derek Trucks. My uncle took me to an Allman Brothers concert when I was 13. [Trucks] has a whole different level of seriousness about playing. What I’d seen before was fun, but I’d never seen that before. I mean, Derek’s focus and his purity was just inspiring. I had been listening to heavy metal (I still enjoy getting that out at times), but hearing Derek, that tone, just stopped me in my tracks. I also started getting inspired by what inspires him. He has a deep well.
ArtsATL: Was discovering Derek Trucks a point where your heart started to turn toward the South?
Johnson: Definitely. Listening to him led me to all this other music I might not have otherwise gotten into. He shook my world up. After I got my driver’s license, I’d drive to go hear him and the Allman Brothers anytime I could. I would drive to wherever they were, because the quality of the music was great. I mean, here was a young guy, 21 or 22, and it was just devastating how great he was, just inspiring. To this day, he’s a hero. So, yes, he definitely had a huge impact on me.
ArtsATL: How did you make your way to Atlanta?
Johnson: I graduated from high school in 2005 and took a year off. I knew I wanted to play and be a musician, but it just wasn’t coming together for me in Rockland. I was drawn to the South. I started realizing I loved the music of the South and all the music that was really influencing me was born of the South. To be closer to the source of all this music really made sense.
But the way my move actually came about was when I ran into this guy who told me the Codetalkers were playing in Boston. I went with him to the show and afterwards, he introduced me to Colonel Bruce and Jimmy Herring. Of course, Bruce guessed my birthday and had sage-like advice — as he always does. I told him I wanted to be a musician, and he winked at me and told me I was going to be okay, going to do all right.
His words were really helpful. Meeting Jimmy Herring was helpful, too. I found out he was teaching on and off at the Atlanta Music Institute, and I said to myself, “Well, I’m thinking of moving down there anyways, so instead of moving down there blindly without any sort of plan, I’ll do the school thing for a minute and give myself a chance to get my feet on the ground and I’ll be in music school, which will help improve my music.” All these great musicians were encouraging me to come down. They were so supportive and told me they would help and make sure I didn’t starve.
ArtsATL: Did you take lessons from Jimmy Herring?
Johnson: [chuckles] Well, no, it didn’t turn out that way. My meeting Jimmy and Bruce and moving to Atlanta all came together in about a week. I was excited about being able to take lessons from Jimmy, but ironically, just about the time I got here and enrolled in the school, Jimmy got the gig with Widespread Panic. So he wasn’t teaching too much after that. He’d be gone for like eight months at a time. I didn’t get so much one on one with Jimmy, but he was there enough for me to approach him and tell him I’d met him back in Boston. I gave him one of my CDs.
The next time I saw him he told me it was really good and he wanted to introduce me to a drummer, Duane Trucks, who was also just moving to Atlanta and didn’t know anybody here. I had actually played with Duane and Kevin Scott a few years earlier. We all got together and started playing with Colonel Bruce, and I learned a lot there. I would have to give the Colonel credit for really helping me grow.
ArtATL: How did you land the gig with Randall Bramblett?
Johnson: I have to credit Colonel Bruce with that, too. He called me and gave me Randall’s number and said, “Call Randall Bramblett, he’s looking for a new guitar player.” More importantly, the Colonel was kind enough to make the recommendation to Randall. He was looking for a new guitar player to come on tour for two weeks; he was opening up for Bonnie Raitt. We had a couple of gigs before we actually went out. I suppose he wanted to make sure I wasn’t some crazy person before he took me on the road [laughs].
ArtsATL: What was that like?
Johnson: Amazing. Randall is such a well-respected musician and incredibly talented. Bonnie Raitt and her entire band and crew were so very gracious the entire time to us. They treated us like family. The crowds were great, too.
ArtsATL: Those are some great reviews of that experience. Randall’s newly released album, “The Bright Spots,” is also enjoying some great reviews. What’s it been like playing those songs with him?
Johnson: It’s an incredible album. It’d be easy for Randall to stick to what’s comfortable or rely on what has given him notoriety. But he’s always pushing himself, with his writing and how his record sounds. He lets new stuff inform him and affect how he’s going to play. That can be rare with a guy as seasoned and great as he is. It’s one thing to record a song and another to be able to play it live. These songs are just incredible. It’s been a lot of fun to try to adapt the songs to the four-piece band we tour with most of the time.
ArtsATL: I was speaking with Randall after a recent performance. When I told him I wanted to interview you, he stood quietly amidst a lot of after-show commotion and chaos, looked me square in the eyes and said, “Nick Johnson has caused me to love music again. He has absolutely renewed my love for music.” How do those words make you feel?
Johnson: Wow, it’s flattering, especially coming from someone like Randall. He’s one of the best musicians I know, one of the best people I know. I’ve been plugging away down here for about seven years now, and to hear that from Randall is reassuring. I mean, Randall deserves so much fame. You just want to shake the rest of the world and say, “Hey, this guy’s over here!” I really appreciate that Randall won’t shortcut to get to the next level, ‘cause that’s not honest. They say the dancing poodle always wins the prize. He’s not a dancing poodle. I love him; the whole band loves him. He’s so well respected. Randall actually energizes me.
ArtsATL: Is it always only the dancing poodle that wins the prize?
Johnson: [Pauses, then laughs] Gosh, I hope not.
Nick Johnson will appear with the Electromatics at Blind Willie’s on September 25. He will appear with Randall Bramblett October 5 at the Roswell Riverside Sounds Concert Series.