Justin Johnson – Drivin’ It Down album review
Guitar albums are very tough to get right. When a solo guitarist releases an album sometimes the songs get lost in an attempt to show off a host of flashy licks. Justin Johnson is not the type of guy who has this problem though, and his new album Drivin’ It Down demonstrates that very clearly. The album is available via his website here.
The blues rocker came to prominence via the groove-laden playing exhibited on his YouTube channel, which has racked up millions of views. He of course is also known for his three-string shovel guitar jam, which we talked about in our recent interview. Drivin’ It Down is an exploration of blues, country and rock, led by Johnson’s absolutely superb guitar playing. The man has the vision to allow the album to be more than a demonstration of his ability though, as the compositions are given enough space to breathe.
Justin Johnson records in Johnny Cash’s studio for new album
Drivin’ It Down was recorded in the Cash Cabin Studio in Nashville Tennessee, which is owned by Johnny Cash’s son John Carter Cash. The late legendary country performer recorded much of his work at the studio. John Carter Cash also appears as a guest musician on the album. There’s a total of six producers credited on the album, headed by executive producer Ian McDonald and including Justin Johnson. The production is crystal clear and allows you to hear every nuance of the playing on the record.
The album is a change of pace for Johnson, as unlike his two previous solo albums, it was recorded with a full band. The guitarist now lives on the road full time with his wife, and he explained that this lifestyle helped inspire the album:
“We’ve travelled a lot of miles chasing down this life of music, and Drivin’ It Down is inspired by that wide open road. My goal for the album is for it to feel like that perfect road-trippin’ soundtrack that makes you want to get behind the wheel and see what’s around the next bend.”
Johnson’s forward-thinking approach to blues and country makes his material stand out in the scene. His deep passion for the above genres really comes through in his playing. Drivin’ It Down is worth a listen for anyone who even dabbles in those styles. The 16-track double album is the perfect soundtrack to having a few cold ones with mates, in addition to also been a good one for hitting the road.
Funk royalty Bootsy Collins appears on Drivin’ It Down
Much of the album is instrumental but Johnson brings in a few friends to help out, including legendary bassist Bootsy Collins, x3 Grammy Award winning multi-instrumentalist Bill Miller, vocalist Ana Cristina Cash and Grammy Award winning bassist Mark Winchester (Brian Setzer Orchestra). Bootsy Collins co-wrote and co-produced deep cut Rollin’, which has a sexy funk/reggae vibe. The lyrics let the song down a little, but the groove is solid.
Johnson has included quite a mix of styles and moods throughout the album. There’s upbeat jams like Bootleg Turn, which get any country dance floor pumping in an instant. There’s filthy funk grooves like Funky Bootz, where Johnson shows off some excellent chops in an understated, stylish way. You can also find plenty of blues-rock material, like Loose Change. The track features some chunky riffing as well as a nasty wah solo in the middle section.
Justin Johnson dabbles in experimental material
Johnson occasionally heads into experimental territory, such as Misterioso #2. The song is a super laid back jam, where the guitarist really stretches out and gives us some expansive lead playing. Certain sections remind me of Omar Rodríguez-López’s playing in The Mars Volta. It’s probably a case of common influences rather than a direct inspiration though. Another more experimental moment is the inspired lead breaks in Got the Chick’n, which at times sounds like old school prog rock with a big dollop of groove.
The more experimental material is counterbalanced by instantly recognisable numbers like Johnny B. Goode and I Put a Spell on You. Most people will probably associate the latter song with Creedence Clearwater Revival, although the song was originally co-written and performed by Jay Hawkins. Johnson eschews the more aggressive takes done by the previously mentioned artists and instead performs the song as a brooding downtempo blues/retro pop number. He’s well known for his interesting rearrangements of classics and this one is no exception. Bill Miller provides vocals for the song.
Johnny Cash classic inspires Johnson
The Johnny Cash cover Ghost Riders in the Sky is the best rearrangement, and flat out best song, on the record. It’s just a perfect choice of cover for Johnson, who follows a powerful ambient intro with the iconic guitar licks in the main riff. The fuzz solo in the bridge is gorgeous too. The lyric-free vocals are provided by John Carter Cash, Ana Christina Cash and Bill Miller.
The album is really a testament to Johnson’s ability to effortlessly cross over stylistic boundaries. He’s just at home with blues, rock, old school country or funk. In that way his playing reminds me of the young but fantastically talented blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr. Fans of any of the above genres would likely find something to enjoy on Drivin’ It Down, as would anyone who just loves great music and guitar playing.
If you want to hear some more fiery blues-rock playing, we recently covered the release of Jack White’s surprise single release Battle Cry here.