You would be forgiven for thinking of Jeremiah Johnson as a blues artist. After all, the St. Louisan has a hot hand on the electric guitar and a long history of producing live-wire barroom blues with the aid of a band that adds liberal amounts of tenor saxophone and Hammond organ to the mix. But for Johnson, who has no small amount of twang in his delivery, the strictures of the genre could feel a little restrictive at times.
"They were calling me blues-rock — that's the category they would put me in," Johnson says of DJs and promoters. But for his latest LP, Heavens to Betsy, Johnson is less interested in twelve-bar blues and more inspired by the swampy, rootsy rock & roll that came out of places like Muscle Shoals. "This one is more of a Southern rock record — and of course all Southern rock music is built on blues," he says. "This is based on the stuff I'd hear on KSHE 95 as a kid."
This is Johnson's second record with well-regarded blues label Ruf Records; the German imprint has helped make inroads for Johnson to tour around Europe, which he's already done once in 2020. Still, the change in approach is something of a question mark for someone long associated with the blues.
"I don't know how it will be received — it's a pretty big change," he says.
In addition to seeking a Southern rock sound, Johnson sought to change his approach to songwriting. Rather than rely on fretboard fireworks, his songs were built from the ground up.
"Most of my previous records I would start with a guitar lick and then add lyrics," he says. "This time I sat down with an acoustic guitar and a pile of lyrics. I wanted all of these songs to be something I could play on an acoustic guitar around a campfire. The idea is more of a song-first approach, where you're trying to write a good tune and not so much around a snazzy guitar."
"Forever and a Day" was the first song that Johnson wrote for this album, and it set the model for what would come after. "I was sitting with an acoustic — it's only about four chords to the whole song; it's really simple, just cowboy chords," he says. "Once I took it to the band to record a demo — after we recorded it with the electric [guitar] and the bass and the saxophone — I realized that's the sound I was after.
"I'm sure the record label would have preferred me to do a straight blues record, but I've been around and I've got stories to tell," he adds.
As to those stories, many of the songs on Heavens to Betsy are taken from Johnson's personal life, specifically his own growing family.
"I've got a six-month-old and I was writing these songs where he was not quite born yet," he says. "I had all these thoughts about being a father for the first time."
"Leo Stone" is named after his little boy, a joyful and hopeful ode to this new stage in Johnson's life.
"I had all these emotions going through your head," he says of his mindset as he wrote the song. "I was 46 years old and was gonna be a father for the first time. I started having these emotions, and it all came out really fast. It's about the excitement of being a first-time father."
In fact, little Leo made his debut just as Johnson was completing his demo of the song. "Literally, we had just finished writing the last of the lyrics, and my fiancee yelled down 'Hey, it's time to go to the hospital,'" he recalls. Playing the song in concert and communicating his happiness to the audience has made the hardened musician into something of a softy.
"It's really difficult to sing, when you've got that much joy in you, without crying," Johnson says. "I'm proud to have my son in my life and I'm proud that I can leave him this song to let him know what I was feeling."
Johnson's family inspired other songs on the album as well; "Ecstasy" is an ode to his fiancee, while "Long Way Home" is a tribute to the lessons learned from his grandmother.
"As I've grown, I think my songwriting has taken a turn, and I think it's a happier turn. My old songs may have been about women and drinking; those songs don't mean as much to me anymore," Johnson says. "You get older and things change.
"I feel like I put a lot into it," Johnson says of Heavens to Betsy. "The DJs that are used to playing me across the nation are probably shocked that it's a little more rock. I'm not gonna write and play songs that aren't in my heart. Of course I want success, but I want to make real music that's from the heart."