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With a little help from his friends

Jacob Johnson Group brings fuller sound to Jammin in July

Posted: July 10, 2014 5:00 p.m.
Updated: July 11, 2014 5:00 a.m.

By TOM DIDATO

C-I (Camden, S.C.) sports editor

tdidato@chronicle-independent.com

 

Some people go to a concert wanting to see the lead act and wanting to hear from the lead act only. Not many go with ears wide open hoping to take away something more than a singer performing something more than just their old or new hits.

As he made his way to his first concert, to see Willie Nelson on stage, a young Jacob Johnson got more than he bargained for at the show. Of course, he heard the Red-headed Stranger sing his songs which have endeared him to generations of fans whose musical tastes can run the gamut across several genres of music.

On that evening, Johnson --- a native of Travelers Rest --- was exposed to a far-reaching world of music performed by Nelson and his band. Rather than a heavy dose of country, Nelson dipped into the American songbook and sang more than a few standards. That show ended up having a profound influence on Johnson who will bring his trio to Camden as one of the headliners for Saturday’s 19th annual Jammin in July at Historic Camden Revolutionary War Site.

"I listened to Willie Nelson early on. Willie was my first concert," Johnson said in a telephone interview from his home in the Upstate. "In fact, I’m wearing a Willie shirt, right now. He has connections to all these great singer-songwriters like (Bob) Dylan, Kris Kristofferson.

"At the first concert I went to, (Nelson) had just put out a jazz album so, he was playing some Django Reinhardt and Cole Porter. At 12 or 13, I discovered Django Reinhart through Willie Nelson."

Just as a Willie Nelson concert led Jacob Johnson to discovering other artists, his musical quest took him in other directions as he tried to find his own style … his own voice and a personal take on what would become his music.

Listening to Johnny Cash records took him into paying particular attention to the guitar playing of Carl Perkins, who played with Cash for many a year. From there, Johnson was led down a musical path which winded into blues and rockabilly music, opening his mind and ears into guitar players such as Brian Setzer, Stevie Ray Vaughn and eventually, Jimi Hendrix.

"Any artist that I’m attached to or, who I really follow, for the most part it’s because they were somehow connected to another artist that I loved," Johnson said of his musical influences. "It’s all kind of connected to something else. There’s nothing that I listen to that stands totally on its own."

As he became more involved in playing guitar, Johnson decided to take the full-time plunge into music as he left North Greenville University to pursue his musical dreams. A self-taught player, Johnson came up with his own unique style which he describes as "Neo-Acoustic folk/funk."

Playing a mix of originals and covers, including a wildly entertaining "Chim Chim Cher-ee" from the movie Mary Poppins which he performed during his solo set at Jammin last summer, a Johnson show oftentimes includes using the back side of his guitar for a drum to create his own percussion while, other times, using his long fingers which seem to bound along the guitar’s fret like a young child touching and re-touching a hot pan.

But Johnson can also slow things down, if needed as he seeks to make sure he is not pigeon-holed into being a one-trick pony, so to speak. He can easily maneuver between a rocking number to creating a more intimate mood.

"Mixing different genres into my style is not something that I do intentionally," he said. "It’s sort of the product of the musical environment that I put myself in."

His unique style of play appeals to other artists with whom he has shared the stage with over the years. He has opened for his idol, Tommy Emmanuel, who many believe to be the greatest guitar player in the world. He has played alongside fellow Upstater Edwin McCain as well as with seminal bassist Victor Wooten who, in 2011, was named by Rolling Stone as one of the magazine’s top 10 bassists of all time, and with Tim Reynolds, lead guitarist for the Dave Matthews Band, among others.

Playing with such legendary figures can bring a young up-and-comer such as Johnson back down to earth when sharing the stage with those who have paid their dues and reaping the benefits of their craft.

"It does, in a big way, because (music) has to break you down before it can build you back up again," he said of playing alongside the aforementioned group and other artists.

"If you’re playing with somebody like that, then maybe your first instinct is to let it go to your head and say, ‘Well I’m playing with these big shots.’ Then, you realize just how much talent there is out there and how many great players and great songwriters there are.

"Those are some of the ones who I’ve gotten to play with but there are a lot of great guys I’ll never hear or be aware of. In a sense, it makes you humble because you appreciate what else is out there."

Johnson laughed in telling a story as to how playing on the same bill as a legend in the industry can humble a young guitarist.

About a year and a half ago, Johnson was scheduled to open a show for acoustic guitar legend and one of Johnson’s heroes, Phil Keaggy. Due to a series of unforeseen events, however, Keaggy took the stage first with Johnson forced to follow the headline performer.

"(Keaggy) was the headliner at this theater which had 700 to 800 people there. I played my 20- or 30-minute set after him … one of my heroes," Johnson said of the experience. "Nothing will break down the idea of, ‘Man, I have to be the best’ like playing with one of your heroes, especially after them. But once you realize that you’re not the best and you’re not going to be the best because there is no best, that’s when your ego gets out of the way. Once your ego gets out of the way, which is a big problem for musicians because, we’re all ego-driven, you can focus on what you need to do and just being unique and yourself … as hokey as that sounds."

In addition to being someone who plays a mean guitar, Johnson also writes his own music. Some of his tunes, he said, will come to him while riding his bicycle on the trails near his home in the Greenville area. Other times, Johnson and his musically inclined friends will get together at a designated located and brainstorm, all the while working on their own project as opposed to collaborating on a song.

"We don’t co-write songs together, but we’ll each write songs that we’re working on," Johnson said of the work sessions. "We’ll get together at somebody’s house and we’ll all kind of work on our projects.

"There’s something about that creative energy that, maybe, is helpful. You get the creative energy of a group but without too many cooks trying to spoil the broth because you’re not all trying to work on the same thing."

Johnson, who has played solo shows in Camden at the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County, The Venue on Broad and at last year’s Jammin in July, plays fan favorite original tunes such as "Try," "Ferryboat Waltz," and "Waitress," among others. His music and lyrics, he said, are constantly evolving as he seeks that perfect fit between himself and his guitar.

"Every person is different," he said of the way he goes about writing a new song. "I feel like, usually, I come up with the melody first or, the melody and the music together. I don’t typically write just lyrics and then, later, set them to music but that’s happened, too. Every time it comes, it’s a little bit different.

"I’m not nearly as prolific as the songwriters who I would like to be. Every time that I write something that I’m really happy with and that I’m really proud of, I think, ‘Man, am I ever going to be able to do that again?’ I feel like every (song) is going to be the last one."

For those who have seen Jacob Johnson perform in Camden in his previous three stops in town, Saturday will provide a different show as he will be joined on stage by drummer John Henry who, like Johnson, is a self-taught musician, and bass player Mark Eshenbaugh, who Johnson said is "the glue who holds the group together."

"Mark is an incredible musician who has sung in operas and has taught voice, bass, violins, drums … he knows so much about music but he can play all those instruments, too," Johnson said of Eshenbaugh. "He can be the go-between for John, who speaks drum language and me, who speaks guitar language."

Together, Johnson said, the trio brings a different dynamic to the performance as opposed to his playing a solo set.

"I’m a huge musician snob so, I don’t say this out of modesty," he said, "but these guys that I’m playing with are so good that I’m embarrassed that they’re playing with me, really. We all learn from each other; we all have our own unique musical backgrounds. Some of it is very informal and some of it is very formal. We really learn a lot from each other.

"Between the three of us, there’s always one of us who is always outside the loop and the other ones can fill in the gap."

Thanks to playing as a trio, festivals have been more apt to book the Jacob Johnson Group and its sound which has a higher energy level than an acoustic show. Johnson said the group enhances the experience for those who have seen Johnson’s solo shows.

"For the most part," he said, "the folks who come out to our shows are people who have seen me do shows by myself and come back for the band. I love playing solo shows and I don’t have any plans to stop doing that. There are a lot of things that I can do by myself that I can’t do with a band. And, there’s a lot of stuff that I can do with a band that I can’t do by myself."

Thanks to putting the trio together, the Jacob Johnson Group has been able to book more gigs outside of the Upstate region and bring his music to more people. At the same time, when you are dealing with three individuals, there is also added expense for equipment along with trying to arrange shows around the schedules of three musicians as compared to one.

Still, the experience has been good enough that the Jacob Johnson Group --- which has been together for several years --- is planning to enter the studio to record a new CD during the next year or two and, then, go on tour to promote it at various venues.

Make no mistake about it, Jacob Johnson loves getting on stage and performing … even if the elements may not be the most favorable. With a festival such as Jammin in July in Camden, when the weather at this time of the summer can be anywhere from sunny with a gentle breeze to downright humid and sticky, there are various obstacles which performers have to deal with and overcome.

Johnson said this is part of the deal you sign up for when you are a musician and a band which is bringing the music to the masses in other parts of the state and region and, hopefully, beyond.

"I’ll start with the negative," Johnson said of performing at an outdoor summer festival in the South. "It’s always hard to play outside in the summer. It’s so hot out there, the wood on the instruments can be finicky and there are all sorts of weather issues.

"On the whole, though, festivals have been really good for me. They get you in front of a lot of people who might not have seen you otherwise. It’s great for getting in front of a new audience or, for breaking into a new area because you can show up and play, and as long as you do your job and put on a good show, you’re going to get fans from it."

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