Every time Justin Johnson comes to Cullman, more and more out-of-town music lovers follow him here.
The 29 year-old roots-rock guitarist blends genres in his live sets, radiating folk, surf rock, funk and jazz guitar out from the center of what’s essentially, at its core, a deep-South blues style.
Sporting only one stringed instrument at a time, a loop station that allows him to accompany himself, and a sturdy pair of boots for stomping rhythms, Johnson’s a one-man show. His direct and polite stage banter represents the only vocals in a Justin Johnson performance — the rest is pure instrumental sound.
For many who packed out Berkeley Bob’s Coffee House to hear Johnson Thursday, part of the attraction lies in the way he combines authenticity with virtuosity. His stage kit is a mini-museum of unique stringed instruments with humble origins — the cigar box guitar; the one-stringed diddley bow.
However sophisticated or crude, no instrument sounds humble in Johnson’s hands.
“It’s incredible how he gets the sound he gets out of just one string,” said Sissy Kelly, who made the trip from Guntersville to hear Johnson live for the second time. “My husband and I are big fans of slide guitar, blues stuff, and it’s awesome to get to hear music like this in a small venue like this, where you sit there and hear him do these things live that most people can’t do in a studio.”
Johnson has said he enjoys the personal quality that small venues offer artists. Sure enough, an hour before his live show, he and 20-something enthusiasts were crammed into the coffee shop’s back room, the majority clutching cigar box guitars — both owned and borrowed — while Johnson taught them a little about how to play the things.
“Yeah, he’s the real deal,” said John Alderman of Decatur. “That’s the whole reason my wife and I are here.”
Thursday was Johnson’s second visit to Cullman; he’d made a few fans once before when he swung through for a crowded show at Bob’s last summer. After talking to local music instructors, guitar enthusiasts and folks who were just plain impressed between his two sets, he could tell he’d just made a few more.
Just before packing up the RV he and girlfriend Nikki Jaeger are sharing on his winter tour of the South, Johnson knew he’d left an impression when his host, “Berkeley” Bob Keefe, bought one of his instruments off him after the crowd had gone. Parting with a four-string Highway 55 cigar box guitar he’d used on his most recent album, Johnson left the instrument behind him with a message to its new owner on the back:
“Bob: I know it’s in good hands — Justin.”
Learn more about Johnson and the instruments he uses online at justinjohnsonlive.com.
Click here for more from The Times’ Jan. 2 interview with Johnson and check back here for video from Thursday's event.
Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.