By Sheena Barnett/NEMS Daily Journal
It took Richard Johnston a few years to get to Memphis and the rolling hills of Northeast Mississippi, but once he got here, it was like he came home – musically speaking.
Johnston, a Texas native, lived in California and Japan for years before his love of blues music brought him to Memphis. Once there, he was introduced to a whole other style of blues music, known as hill country blues, and he’s been hooked since.
“Hill country is a bit more electrified and rocked out, and wasn’t my cup of tea when I was first introduced to it,” Johnston said. “To me, it was rocked out enough the way it was. But, dangit, they changed my mind. Now I like to turn it up loud.”
Johnston performed in and managed Junior Kimbrough’s juke joint just outside Holly Springs until the club burned in 2000. His band, made up of Kimbrough’s band members, parted ways, so he started a one-man band and took his act to Memphis’ Beale Street. He invented instruments that helped him play multiple instruments at once.
Director Max Shores made a documentary, “Richard Johnston: Hill Country Troubadour,” about Johnston that aired on PBS and screened at the Tupelo Film Fest.
He’s got a few band members with him now, and he’ll bring them to his upcoming gig at the Link Centre this weekend.
He’s also working on his first radio-ready album, which he plans to call “10 Miles out of Town,” in honor of Kimbrough’s juke joint, which was 11 miles outside of Holly Springs.
“I’m gonna take hill country blues, hopefully, to a little bit of a broader audience,” he said.
He hopes music fans fall in love with hill country blues, just like he did.
“Anybody who hasn’t experienced hill country blues, they have no idea what they’re in for, how much fun music can be again,” he said. “A lot of people feel like they’re listening to music for the first time.”
Johnston doesn’t believe in set lists, and wants his fans to feel the music as naturally as he does at live shows.
“I don’t have a particular set list; if I did, I wouldn’t have any success at rousing these people, as I’m known to do. I organically let it happen. You’ve gotta acknowledge them, and a setlist says you’re not acknowledging them,” he said. “It’s a huge emotion that spills out of the musician, and that’s why I love it.”