Mile Post 12, James Boyd Johnson
The liner of Mile Post 12, James Boyd Johnson’s new release, is littered with vintage family photos. There isn’t a recent shot of the artist, so you’re left to form your own image. Chances are, that picture’s going to be of a grizzled piece of work wearing the years like battle scars, hunched over a beat up six-string, offering up a voice much sweeter than the shell it comes out of. Who else could legitimately call their particular genre “Outlaw Country?”
As the label might give you to believe, the album comes down to the basics—some hard times lyrics, an acoustic guitar and that voice. It’s plenty though.
See that’s the thing, that voice. Like the sound you’d get if you threw Dylan’s twang in a blender with Tom Wait’s rumble, and added a dash of Nick Cave. It’s not so much the timbre (that changes moment to moment), it’s that Johnson uses his voice like a stripper uses seven veils, teasing you with something you’re sure is there but you can’t quite grab ahold of.
The voice draws you in makes you listen much more closely to the songs.
The songs themselves are an eclectic mix of covers like Thunder Road, Summertime and Pancho & Lefty, peppered in amongst a greater number of Johnson’s own tunes. Even the covers are unique because Johnson reinvents everything his voice touches with hypnotic phrasing that shades just ahead of or behind the melody. It’s one of those tricks that sure as hell wouldn’t work for the rest of us on karaoke night, but weaves pure magic when employed by a true musician.
Johnson’s singing makes every song on the album spring to raw life, and his lyrics are deft and timeless in the manner of classic blues. The hooks tumble back on themselves like water over the rocks in a rive and the songs put dangerous thoughts in your head. Listening to Bartender, I wanted nothing more than to find a dark dive bar and order whiskey straight and leave the bottle. If Johnson stretches a little to channel Lou Reed for the only electric offering Burn, and exercise the twelve bar blues on Not the Only One, it’s only a change in the instrument. The feeling remains the same.
All the songs capture that particular melancholy that runs through truly great, bluesy country—from Hank Williams Sr., to Lefty Frizzell to early Johnny Cash. (In fact, “Outlaw Country Blues” would have been just as good a handle for what Johnson plays.) These are musical stories of loss and wanting, a small bit of poetic misery. Be warned: play the album through and you’ll wind up with the taste of bourbon and road dust on your tongue, and itch to wander on out there, where a single soul-hurting guitar is being picked, out where it’s dark, at desolate Mile Post 12.