Fully capable of performing as a one-man band, Richard Johnston is an
anomaly in the music industry. After having Robert Johnson songs imbedded
into his subconscious mind by his roommate while attending college in
California, he started to learn the open tunings of the delta bluesmen.
Naturally, this meant that his next move was to. Japan, where he played for
several years before returning to the US and the Memphis TN/North
Mississippi area in particular. It was in Memphis where he won the
prestigious 17th Annual Blues Foundation's International Blues Talent
Competition and captured the Albert King Award for the most promising guitar
player in the competition at the same time. (The first double crown in
seventeen years.) Since then, he has played in three countries and been seen on national television in two of them. He has had his name in
print in blues society newsletters all over the world and has accomplished
all of this on his own, without a record or a recording contract.
Ever wary of record companies, their oftentimes dubious financial practices
and dark clouds of forced commercialization and potential loss of personal
integrity looming over them, Richard has carried his musical soul through
the maze of record company promises and deception with his focus directed on
the music and his fans. Untouched and unfettered by the constraints of a
faceless money hungry musical Godzilla, "Foot Hill Stomp" is Richard
Johnston's musical vision captured on CD FTRC.
Loaded with standards from the North Mississippi Hill Country, the locomotive power of "Foot Hill Stomp" has the raw rhythmic drive of a primal entity that will infuse itself into the dark primitive recesses of your primordial senses. Possessing a voice that is "at times" somewhat reminiscent of a young Billy Gibbons, (... should I say that? Listen to "Come On In"). Richard has the vocal ability to do a solid job singing and
his multi-instrumental prowess is exceptional. He pulls off the complicated
NMHC style with apparent ease, as well as the approval of the legendary
Jessie Mae Hemphill, who accompanies Richard with the tambourine on several
of the songs and shares writing credits and sings with him on "Chicken and
Gravy." This familiarity with the North Mississippi Hill Country style (The
Hemphill family, Eli Green, Fred McDowell, Rainey Burnette, Junior
Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside .) came about when he was immersed in the scene
after joining the "Soul Blues Boys" (Junior's band) and literally began
performing the hill country music while he learned it in what he has called,
"...the best period of my life."
His years as a North Mississippi Hill Country blues journeyman and Beale
Street performer have paid off and he has now caught up with himself as is
evidenced here on "Foot Hill Stomp." The CD begins with the infectious
"Miss Maebelle," a song written by Rainey Burnette, made famous by R.L.
Burnside, and re-arranged here by Richard. The driving groove created at
the beginning is almost reminiscent of a Chuck Berry styled song before it
morphs into a "Shake "Em On Down" motif. Next is the classic Junior
Kimbrough song, "Do the Romp." With it's own laid back pulse, Richard, Mark
Simpson, and Tony Ray Adams hold the primal urging of the original deep
rhythm, raw and intact. "Do the Romp" is followed by another traditional
song Richard learned from Mr. Burnette titled, "Coal Black Mattie and two
more Junior Kimbrough songs (with a few traditional parts), all rearranged
by Richard. He subsequently breaks down R.L. Burnside's, "Come On In" to a
raw and raucous state with Robert "Nighthawk" Tooms blowing a pseudo "Led
Zeppelin" sounding harp (i.e. "When the Levee Breaks") and the self-taught
and imaginative Cedric Burnside sitting in with his expressive drumming.
(Cedric plays drums on "Come On In" and "Work Me Baby" while Robert plays
harp on "Come On In" and "Miss Maebelle.")
On the seventh of the nine songs, Jessie Mae Hemphill joins Richard on the
tambourine and vocal encouragement for a speeded up version of Rev. Robert
Wilkins, "That's No Way To Get Along." Following this is "The Shaggy
Hound," which is credited to Do-Boy Diamond. This title and credit is
confusing because Richard begins with several phrases from Do-Boy's "Going
Away Blues" and continues with phrases from other traditional songs. (.And
perhaps a line or two of his own) Meanwhile his accompanying music is
nothing like "The Shaggy Hound," "Going Away Blues," or any other Do-Boy
Diamond song I could find. Actually, the only similarity I noticed with
Do-Boy's "The Shaggy Hound" is a single lyrical phrase near the end of the
song. (All of this is really a moot point anyway because it's still a great
tune, regardless of the writing credit.)
A special treat concludes "Foot Hill Stomp" when the illustrious Jessie Mae
Hemphill joins in on the vocals. While her post-stroke voice isn't quite as
strong as it used to be, her glowing inner spark is still alive and well and
it's a pleasure to hear her again as she states at the end of the song,
".No, I wasn't through!"
Richard Johnston's "Foot Hill Stomp," is a barefoot rompin' stompin'
rhythmic journey through the Hill Country of North Mississippi and the
credits read like a "Who's Who" of local legends. Richard definitely has
his pulse on the primal locomotive energy and ragged guttural country drive
of the music and it explodes off the tracks like a thunderous train. Richard
's excellent vocals are blended with his versatile musicianship as he
integrates his own musical influences with those from the Hill Country.
Among the instruments he plays are the foot drums, the resonator guitar with
his own built in electric scratch plate, the washboard, a bass guitar, a
regular guitar, and a Lowe Bow - Hill Harp. The inventor of the Lowe Bow
brand, John Lowe, and Richard Johnston designed the Lowe Bow - Hill Harp.
The Hill Harp is this particular model's name and is a diddley-bow type
stringed instrument that looks like two broomsticks sticking out of a cigar
box. One neck has a bass string and the other neck has three strings for a
fretless bass/baritone guitar. Each neck has it's own pickup with the bass
neck plugged into a bass amp and the other neck into a guitar amp. For more
information about the Hill Harp or his many other unique Lowe Bow models,
contact John Lowe at email@example.com .
"Foot Hill Stomp" was recorded at Webb Studios in Memphis TN and engineered
by Brad Webb. Richard and Brad did the mixing and Mark Yoshida at
Audiographic Masterworks in Memphis did the mastering. The sound quality,
mixing, and production are excellent and the whole CD is a masterpiece from
start to finish. It may be early in the year but I rate this up in the "Best
of 2002" without any reservation whatsoever.
For information about booking or to order the CD, contact Richard Johnston
at Foothillstomp@cs.com or www.richardjohnston.com
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This review is copyright © 2002 by Stephen T. Davidson, and Blues On Stage at: www.mnblues.com, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission.
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