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Music Journeys: Eric Johnson

Max Crace

Eric Johnson has been mentioned more than once as one of the most respected and talented guitar players in music. 

He's recorded and performed with other guitar greats, including Chet Atkins, B.B. King, and Jeff Beck. Johnson has more than a dozen releases to his credit from studio albums to live recordings and collaborative projects. But it's his second release Ah Via Musicom back in 1990 that's drawn the most admiration from his fans - so much so that Johnson has been on tour playing the album in its entirety. He brings that tour to Columbus Sunday night at the Athenaeum. In the latest edition of Music Journeys, Johnson tells Mike Foley about how that special record came together.       

Cliffs Of Dover plays...

Eric Johnson has done some incredible things in music, but even he admits that Cliffs of Dover remains his signature song. It's the second track from his 1990 Ah Via Musicom release, and it won the Grammy for Best Rock Instrumental. It's also a groove that came to Johnson rather quickly.

"I wrote that song in five minutes," Johnson recalled. "Some of the more challenging guitar licks had to be worked out, but the gist of the song just kind of dropped in my lap, almost like it was floating around in the universe and I just happened to pick up on it. I don't know if it's the most original song in the world, but it did end up being the one that people related with."

The 64-year-old Johnson grew up in Austin, TX initially playing the piano. He took up guitar at age 11 and performed in a couple bands during his teenage years, constantly practicing and trying to develop his own style. Johnson's first solo release came in 1986, but he wanted the follow-up to be special.    

"I had done my first record for Warner Brothers, and it did okay," Johnson reflected. "But I wanted to do something substantial because it was a pivotal place in my career where I needed to do the very best I could. I spent years doing those songs and had the luxury of picking and choosing which songs went on the record. I just gave it all I had to try to make a decent guitar record that also had some nice songs on it. I just pushed myself really hard to make that record. I figured if I made a statement that was the absolute best at the time I could do, that maybe things could work out."   

Righteous plays...

"I think it was the right time," Johnson said. "There was a lot of energy and focus on guitar playing and instrumental guitar playing as well. It was allowed to be in the musical focus of people. I think I did my best trying to balance songs with guitar playing. I tried not to lose the basis of the song in the music, but still put the guitar-playing in it. Jeff Shane at Capitol really loved it and tirelessly promoted it. He got a lot of people to give it a shot. I guess it just happened at the right time." 

With the songs Righteous and Trademark, Johnson became the first artist to have three Top 10 instrumentals from the same record. 

Trademark plays...

"As I was working on it, I kept getting a lot of different guitar part ideas, and I just didn't feel there was any need for vocals," Johnson recalled about Trademark. "The melody was inside of the guitar that I was playing and if I would have put vocals on it, it would have covered up something else. Not doing that left more space for the original guitar melody. Sometimes an instrumental song can stay more open and less definitive, maybe not popularity-wise but in other ways it can stay more timeless. If I'm writing a song and it has a nice integrity to it without vocals, then I will just go with it and just see where it goes. There's a point where songs can go either way. Sometimes you just let the music decide what to do, and it'll kind of tell you."

Desert Rose plays...

Four of the 11 songs from Ah Via Musicom feature Johnson's vocals, including Nothing Can Keep Me From You.  

Nothing Can Keep Me From You plays...

"Tommy Taylor, the original drummer that's playing on this tour, came up with the name of that song," Johnson said. "Just a love song for somebody you love being around and how their energy is very healing to you. After the vocals, that whole jam session is from a demo recording in my garage practice room at the time. We added it on the end because we could never capture that same vibe."

Nothing Can Keep Me From You ending plays...

For Ah Via Musicom, Johnson recorded many of the guitar overdubs in the middle of the night by himself. 

"The engineer Richard Mullen was called away to finish Stevie Ray Vaughan's In Step record," Johnson recalled. "Mullen had to disappear for a few months, so he set me up a way to record myself. I didn't have a studio at the time, but they gave me the keys to a studio and let me go in there at midnight. I went in there by myself, which gets pretty crazy after a few months. I felt like Steve McQueen in Papillon. I needed to get around people"   

High Landrons plays...

In those recording sessions nearly 30 years ago and even today, Johnson has the same goal - searching for a sound that will inspire people and make them feel a little better.

"It's wonderful to have art in the world in all its different forms, visually and orally and everything," Johnson said. "I think there's a place for noting stress and angst and problems in the world. It's great to have a venue to express in all different polarities. I think my little niche is to try to make sounds and music that tries to make people feel a little better or a little more healed or a little happier or a little more joyous. That's always my intention. That's my lot for me to try to do, and that's what I enjoy doing. If somebody's going to take a few minutes to listen to a song, I think it's a wonderful opportunity to try to lift them up a little bit."  

Forty Mile Town plays... 

Ah Via Musicom loosely translates as "communicating through music." While he's done that for us over the years, the music has been speaking to him in a different way.  

"Doing this tour has been really good for me," Johnson reflected. "It's made me re-look at some of the stuff over the years that I've done, and even re-learn some of the songs with some old gear. It made me take inventory of some of my past, and I discovered certain things about it that were great. It gave me a good look and overview of all these years. Here's a guitar technique or a sound that I haven't done for long time that's really cool. It's been really good for me to go back and pick and choose some of the things that I feel had integrity from the past that maybe I've moved on from but maybe would be better if I utilized them in the present and future. I'm very thankful that I did this because I think it's going to help me artistically to almost re-calibrate where I want to go." 

The Ah Via Musicom tour wraps up in early November, and Johnson expects to release new music in 2019. His most recent release came in 2017 with Collage.

East Wes plays...

Eric Johnson performs Sunday night at The Athenaeum Theatre. The concert features two sets, including all 11 songs from Ah Via Musicom.

Mike Foley joined WCBE in February 2000, coming from WUFT in Gainesville, Florida. Foley has worked in various roles, from producing news and feature stories to engineering Live From Studio A sessions. A series of music features Foley started in 2018 called Music Journeys has grown into a podcast and radio show. He also assists in developing other programs in WCBE's Podcast Experience. Foley hosts The Morning Mix, a weekday music show featuring emerging and established musicians, our Columbus-area and Ohio-based talent, and additional artists that inspire him.
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