"Rotary" isn't a bad way to describe Johnson and his band, Centro-matic. With his gentle, southern-Missouri accent and a collection of songs connecting heart and land, Johnson is a throwback to a time when your front porch was the place to see and be seen, and moonshine was the pick of poisons. You can take a man out of Missouri, but, in Johnson's case, you can't get him out of the central time zone.
Centro-matic last toured in the fall of 2004 with another laurel-steeped band, the Drive-By Truckers. Along with Kings of Leon, the Truckers and bands like Centro-matic enroll listeners in the school of country-inflected rock music once run by Whiskeytown, the Jayhawks and the Old 97's. The explosion of avant experimentation following the release of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot gave a more accepting ear to fans of twang rock, expanding interest in lo-fi, lyrically driven bands. Add to the equation a steadily increasing national obsession with the Austin music scene, thanks in large part to the once-underground South by Southwest festival, and you are left with bands like Slobberbone, Centro-matic and Johnson's side project, South San Gabriel -- and a teeming, near-rabid fan base.
From a Centro-matic standpoint, mainstream might as well refer to the Rio Grande. The extent of Johnson's relationship with the music industry is reading reviews of his albums, and between Centro-matic, South San Gabriel and his own solo records, he has plenty of material to peruse.
"It's natural to pay attention to a degree," Johnson says of both his positive and negative criticism. "You want to feel encouraged about making your next recording. But I distance myself from it a lot of the time, partially because there's a lot of touring. What you really want to see is growth on the road. Are people still coming out? Are more people coming out?"
Yes and yes. The Centro-matic message board is one of the more entertaining on the Web, and it's an intensely effective publicity machine. Centro-matic's shows, which are almost always in small venues, routinely sell out. Even though it's easy to want the best for the band, it's hard to accept that Centro-matic's popularity might increase to the point where it's forced into larger venues. The group's sound, while not small, is intimate. This is storytelling music, not arena rock, and though Johnson has a way of building his own wall of sound within songs, his most moving moments come when listeners connect with the music through its language.
"A lot of times, I just get up in the morning and start writing," Johnson says. "There's no real set process, and there shouldn't be, or you're thinking too much about the writing. And that kills the song."
Johnson's writing is the north wind that shifts his attention from band to band. Though he and his bandmates try not to get too academic about recording in a certain order, a kind of rotation cropped up over the years: a Centro-matic release, then a solo record, then a South San Gabriel album.
"With songwriting it depends on the day, the time. I may not write specifically for one band, but I might write with a certain style. If I'm writing with more guitar, with a louder sound, it's because I know the next recording coming up is a Centro-matic record, and I want to have as many songs as I can."
This does not mean that Will Johnson should be lumped in the too-prolific-for-their-own-good category with the Ryan Adamses and Ani DiFrancos of the music world.
"If you write a lot," he says, "there's gonna be some turds in there, too."
Unlike other contemporary write-a-holics, Johnson manages to be almost entirely reliable. Even though he may write songs for three albums in one year, he has enough quality material to support his ubiquity.
"If I'm home for a good spell, I might crank out twenty songs in two weeks. But there are many, many songs that won't see the light of day. And they shouldn't. Doesn't mean they were bad songs, but I know if a song's gonna make it as soon as it's done."
Similarly, you can hear a Centro-matic song and be moved immediately, as soon as it's done. The sound is uncomplicated enough to swell inside a listener the first time she hears it and challenging enough to make the experience worth repeating. The songs mix Midwestern and Southern sensibilities without meandering down paths too hokey or religious. Spiritual, yes, but never preachy.
"The music has definitely gotten more confessional with age," allows Johnson. "When I first started writing songs ten years ago, I was hesitant to put too much of myself into songs. I was still trying to figure myself out, still growing up. I would write around emotions and always try to throw in something off-kilter. Now that I'm a little older, it's easier to write from a personal standpoint. I can break down feelings better now than when I was 25. It's not as much of a hurdle to lay it all out there over the course of a song."
At its worst, Centro-matic can be too ponderous, bordering on boredom. But its worst is rare, and overall the songs, even the sad ones, induce interest over lethargy. At his best, Will Johnson marinates the Centro-matic sound in his life, and, after a few drinks, it becomes clear that his life could just as easily be yours. A true southern Missourian, Johnson has his fair share of pints while on tour and thinks of his off-time as not just good for songwriting, but also for resting his liver. He also comes clean as an ardent Cardinals fan, having just finished the counseling resulting from last fall's World Series loss.
It's a shame that more of Johnson's humor doesn't come through in his songs, because it's clearly part of his personality and storytelling nature. This Centro-matic tale sums it up best:
"We were on the road," Johnson remembers, "and we overheard two drunks sitting outside the bar.
"'What time does the beer store close?' one asked.
"'Midnight,' replied the other.
"'What time is it now?'
"'We'll never make it.'"
True, they never did. But Centro-matic will. And if you ask Will Johnson, he'll say it already has.