BWW Interview: Dennis Johnson Talks About His Upcoming Show With the Mississippi Ramblers at The Sofia
- Shakespeare once wrote, "If music be the food of love, play on!" Although he was talking about satiating an appetite for love, why not listen to music to celebrate love? You can extend the Valentine's Day festivities this year by going to see Dennis Johnson and the Mississippi Ramblers perform at The Sofia on February 15. Their show has been called "a must see" by Modesto View Magazine and Johnson was lauded as a "master slide guitarist" by Rootstime Magazine. BroadwayWorld Sacramento spoke to Johnson about the upcoming performance and what we can expect in the future.
As a San Francisco native, how did you come about getting into delta blues and the slide guitar?
I think it comes down to passion. I've always loved music and when I was a little kid my sister had a guitar and my parents could only pay for one person to get lessons, so it was my sister. The first time I played a guitar I felt a crazy déjà vu and I've had those moments with music over and over. There was a draw to music from a young age. I don't know what it was about slide guitar, I was listening to vocalists and horn players and the expression of the note. Something about being able to get the vibrato.
Can you give us a description of what the slide guitar is for those who may not be familiar with it?
It's been in all different areas, Hawaii, India-basically it's a process by which you take a piece of glass or metal and put it over the string and it enables you to move the slide to get a vibrato like a vocalist. It's a method of expression that's like a singer. The background is interesting in the United States. A lot of it started in the south in the Mississippi delta. They had a big piece of wire and would take 2 nails and tack it on a board, put a brick underneath to get tension and take a wine bottle and slide it up and down to get scales. It was called a diddley bow and that was the origin of it. I play the glass slide and basically slide the glass up and down the string and it creates this very cool sound. People also play slide guitar on their laps, but I don't do that. You hear that in country music. In India, the scale is different than ours. Our scale has 12 notes and theirs is called a microtonal scale and they have more notes. The slide guitar lets you go sharp or flat for effect, like a vocalist does. That's why I love slide guitar-it lets you get between the notes. When I hit a note, I intentionally hit it flat several times because it creates tension for the listener. If I hit it right every time, it would be boring.
I see there are typically two different types of guitar that you use for slide-acoustic electric and the resonator guitar. Can you tell me what the differences are?
I have a very unique guitar, which is a 12 string, and we think it's from the 1960s. There are very few in the world and this particular guitar gives you this great sound. I use that in the show and it's a great guitar. I also have two Martin New Yorker parlor guitars. That is a smaller guitar, much like a classical guitar. I have a Strat, an electric guitar, that I play too. They're different. I spent so much time down rabbit holes for tone and it's nice when you hit it and it takes so many hours to get it. You can tell that it really communicates with people. I like making sounds that people don't hear every day. Guitar can be ubiquitous to me, and I like to be unique.
We've all heard of musicians such as Muddy Waters, who is known for blues, but I see that Duane Allman and Jimi Hendrix also played slide sometimes. Who is your favorite slide guitarist?
There are so many. It started with Robert Johnson in the 30s. There's a guy from the Bay area, Roy Rogers, not the cowboy. There are great players out there today. I listen to other musicians, too. I listen to a lot of horn and vocalists. I think for me, the big thing is that artists go through 3 stages: imitation, assimilation, and innovation. You learn to play like them, you learn how to do it and assimilate, and finally innovate. Now I'm in the innovation stage. I love these players but I try to come up with my own things now. This is the 3rd stage of the artist, trippy and scary at times but it's what defines you. What makes them great is they hit that third stage of evolution.
You've been called the "slide guitar master" by Guitar World Magazine. Do you feel that you have reached a pinnacle or do you think that there is more to learn?
I don't say that about myself but it's always nice to hear. I don't feel that you ever reach that pinnacle. There's not enough time. I'm always working on it and asking what I can learn. That's what drives me every day. I love learning, love music, and now for musicians it's amazing because you have YouTube. If you can find some good sources, you can learn for free. 20-30 years ago, you couldn't do that. It was much harder before and it's amazing to me the resources that are available now. It gives access to people that were kind of locked out before.
Your music has been described as a mix of roots, Americana, New Orleans, and others. Are those all variations of blues? What are the differences?
I think that blues is a minor pentatonic scale. I want to do things differently and keep the audience entertained. I play with a phenomenal jazz drummer, horn player, and bass player. I'm lucky to play with musicians like that because I can say, "Oh let's play a New Orleans song," and it's no big deal. It makes it really interesting. I love New Orleans music, I love the city, and it's very similar to San Francisco in that there are so many different cultures that get along. All of these people were in New Orleans playing music and they were listening to each other. Music is great because it teaches you to listen. Being in California, I love Latin music. People are always going to call me a blues musician but I love all music. Roots is like Americana, like bluegrass or Bonnie Raitt or old school country. What happened in the industry is there used to be all these blues festivals and they slowly went away and they were rebranded as roots or Americana. Roots is kind of cultural music outside of the U.S. and Americana is cultural music inside the U.S. We do shows and I meet people that we wouldn't necessarily meet. That's the coolest thing. It brings people together. As long as there are politicians, there will be issues dividing people. It's so cool to look out and see different people that have something in common. It's really a good energy.
I can definitely hear a mix of styles in your music. Who influences you?
The Bros. Landreth are out of Canada and Joe Landreth plays slide guitar. There is a lot of singer-songwriter stuff and I think it's very fresh and innovative and I like it. I love what the Tedeschi Trucks Band is doing. They bring horns and have 12-14 musicians on stage. They leave the slide guitar in where they don't get overpowered by horns. There are many others but right now those are the two that come to mind. Outside of bands that have slide guitar, there are so many great bands. People are making great music.
Your newest album, "Rhythmland," came out in 2017. It was called by Hot Wax Magazine, "One of the best albums of the year in any genre." Can you tell us what makes it so special?
The drummer and I had this discussion and he's very honest. He told me that there was a book for drummers that I should check out. Rhythm was something that I had a hard time getting. I bought this book called Syncopation for Drummers. It's like a bible for drummers. I went through the techniques and it made me better. Music is rhythm, harmony, and melody, and I wasn't great at notating stuff. I could hear and remember but it wasn't where I could explain it from one musician to another. I called it "Rhythmland" because that's where I was at that time. There is a song that I wrote called "Timbale" and I looked through the prism of rhythm on this record because that was a huge aspect of life at that time for me. Also, as a producer, I wanted to edit better. The problem is, you play all of this stuff but if you don't have the rhythm then you're wasting your time. I think that album was good because I looked at all of the songs I wrote and asked which ones have the groove.
You tour quite a bit in Northern California. Do you prefer to stay local?
We've been all around, to the Rocky Mountains, Montana, Washington, Oregon. We do a lot of local stuff. Touring is expensive and I can't do the sleeping in the car thing. It's got to be lucrative. Colorado is beautiful. We did a show in the Rockies that was so gorgeous. We did a great show in Montana. I remember the next day driving through Yellowstone and it was this epic experience. All of these creatures, really trippy like Jurassic Park, very cool. We do a lot of stuff in Northern California but it's always about putting together a new record and getting the studio together. The next record is done and we'll start recording pretty soon. Then we will come out with a much more massive tour.
Is this your first time performing at The Sofia? What can we expect in your show?
This is the first time at The Sofia. We have a guest musician coming who is a phenomenal piano player. This show will be a lot of our new stuff. Lots of snippets that are coming in the next record. The musicians that I work with are phenomenal. If you hand them the ball, they'll score. It's not a typical blues or New Orleans show. We're trying to give them the best experience they can have. I've heard it's a phenomenal room, so I'm looking forward to it. The audience is going to love it.
What do you do between shows?
A typical day for me is to get up and go through the practice regimen, which has evolved over time. We do a lot of improv and that's really important to me to be around musicians that can do that. I love to play on the very floor of volume, very quiet, then get very loud. I go through a lot of those exercises. How would I approach a solo, things of that nature. Right now, I'm putting a studio together at the house, finishing the record, booking. Every job I had in the past was 9-5. This is like having kids, 24 hours a day. It's not just a job, it's an always job. I love music and there are times when it gets frustrating, but it's the love of it that gets you through. Those moments when you bring people together and hear people's stories is amazing. My day is music, music, music. I'm building up a YouTube channel that shows a lot of stuff on tour, instructional videos, stuff like that.
What projects are next for you?
In England there is a sub-culture of slide guitar and the European music scene is interesting. There tends to be more money there and the festivals do very well. The hard thing is getting those scheduled close enough to each other, but I would like to go there. There's a new album coming out, a YouTube channel coming out and I'd like to share some of this knowledge with the world and have people access information for free. Of course, the new record will be very different than anything I've done before. It's cool and I'm taking some chances here.
Dennis Johnson and the Mississippi Ramblers will be at The Sofia for one night only on February 15. Tickets and more information may be found at bstreettheatre.org and dennisjohnsonslide.com. Tickets may also be purchased by calling The Sofia at (916) 443-5300 or by visiting their box office at 2700 Capitol Avenue, Sacramento.
Photo credit: Tony Dellacioppa