Imagine you’re looking for a good time on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, the historic nurturing ground of blues music. You hear the pounding drums, booming bass, and searing lead guitar of a band playing on the sidewalk, so you decide to go check them out.
As you approach the sound, the crowd is thick. Then you catch a glimpse of the center of attention, but wait… It’s only one guy! He’s dressed in overalls and barefoot. He’s playing drums with his feet while he flails an instrument made from a cigar box and two broom handles!
You’ve just discovered one-man-band Richard Johnston as thousands of people do on weekends from April through November. Johnston plays outside the New Daisy Theatre, and except for occasional appearances at blues festivals and nightclubs around the world, if you want to see him that’s where you have to go.
Johnston grew up in Houston, Texas and traveled around the world — including five years in Japan — before he landed in Memphis. He struggled to make ends meet until he found his inspiration in a backwoods juke joint just south of Memphis in the hilly region of north Mississippi.
In the tiny community of Chulahoma, about ten miles out of Holly Springs, Junior Kimbrough operated a juke joint that became a Mecca for people from around the world as Kimbrough’s music and the sounds of other performers from north Mississippi rose in popularity. Musicians, music critics, filmmakers, movie stars, and devoted fans all came to Junior’s juke joint to hear a unique genre of blues music that came to be called, “Hill Country.”
Johnston came too, and he ended up staying. By arriving just shortly before Junior Kimbrough’s untimely death, he stumbled into a unique position. He played Kimbrough’s music to juke joint patrons who had lost their icon, and became the heir apparent to the throne of Hill Country music.
He shared the stage with Hill Country masters including R. L. Burnside and Jessie Mae Hemphill for nearly two years until the juke joint was destroyed by fire. Johnston moved on after the fire, but he took the non-conventional chord structures and hypnotic trance-like rhythms of north Mississippi music with him.
He has since awed audiences around the world and received impressive critical acclaim. His performances surprise audiences on two counts. The first surprise is that the hyperactive Johnston creates a blues trio all by himself. He plays snare drum, tom-tom, bass drum, and high-hat cymbal with foot pedals while he sings and plays guitar or custom-made instruments. Johnston’s cigar box guitar, consisting of strings stretched across two broom handles and a cigar box, allows him to pluck bass lines with his thumb while he picks lead lines with his other fingers. He calls it a hill harp.
The second surprise is that the white, college educated, Texas native recreates the energy of a backwoods juke joint dance party wherever he goes. He produces a primitive sound reminiscent of the African-American performers who provide his inspiration, but adds a hint of Appalachian mountain music. The result is music that, as Johnston describes it, “gets under your skin.”
Johnston stole the show at the 2001 International Blues Talent Competition conducted by the Blues Foundation in Memphis, winning first place as well as the foundation’s award for most promising new blues guitarist. The financial award allowed him to pay for recording sessions and release a CD entitled “Foot Hill Stomp” on his own record label. Staunchly independent, Johnston shuns the music business and initially sold his CD only at live appearances and on the Internet. Having sold over 10,000 copies on his own, he negotiated a deal for international distribution of his recordings in record stores.
Produced and directed by Max Shores for The University of Alabama Center for Public Television, “Hill Country Troubadour” features Johnston in performance at several locations. It also follows him as he visits his friends and mentors in the north Mississippi hills. Hill Country artists interviewed include Jessie Mae Hemphill, R. L. Burnside, and Kinney Kimbrough (Junior’s son).
Other people featured who played a role in Johnston’s life are:
William Lee Ellis – a musician/journalist who suggested Johnston move from Japan to Memphis.
John Lowe – an instrument-maker who collaborated with Johnston on development of the Lowebow Hill Harp.
Dennis Brooks – a booking agent who convinced Johnston to enter the International Blues Challenge.
Sherman Cooper – a north Mississippi farmer and blues fan who gave Johnston a home in the hill country.
Darryl Shed – a Chulahoma resident who tours the ruins of Junior’s juke joint and reminisces with Johnston in the documentary.
For more information about the documentary: maxshores.com/johnston