I met Merl Johnson when he was a 19 year old kid. Quiet and unassuming, holding a banjo; he was a pleasant, affable kid who didn't seem to have much to say. Then he kicked off and sang the Stanley Brothers' "I Only Exist," and I knew we had a monster on our hands. Since that day, through the experiences Merl documented himself earlier, I have seen him grow into as versatile and exemplary a bluegrass musician as I know. The simple fact is, any band in the country in need of a professional-quality musician to fill any one of the five traditional bluegrass instruments could throw Merl on the bus and not skip a beat.
His new Patuxent Music release, Better Man, finds the spotlight shining brightly on Merl's vocals, mandolin playing and fiddling. The album kicks off with a bluegrass reading of the Clint Black hit "A Better Man." Kicked by former Gent Dick Smith on banjo, It's not difficult to assume you've stumbled upon a Country Gentleman gem that had somehow remained buried on some Gents LP from the 70s until this rendition. The contemporary D.C. roots continue to run deep with a take on Bob Perilla's "The Briley Boys." Featuring the unbridled fiddling of local D.C. legend Tad Marks and Jay Starling's haunting dobro, this true story about a late-70s murder spree in Richmond, Virginia will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
Merl never strays too far from his roots though, and fans of a more traditional sound will find plenty of satisfaction here. "Remember Me" is presented in fine duet form, featuring the exquisite tenor vocals of Jay Starling and the twin fiddling of Merl and Jenny Leigh Obert. The fiddle duo also steps to the fore on the standard "All the Good Times are Past and Gone," which follows on the heels of the opening title track and serves to provide the counterbalance between contemporary and traditional that follows throughout the album. Merl's fiddling is featured on a simply beautiful treatment of Bobby Hicks' "Angel Waltz," and a rousing rendition of one of Carter Stanley's most underrated songs, "Sweetest Love," is offered, once again highlighting the fine tenor singing of Jay Starling.
Room is also made for original material, as Merl presents a couple of original instrumentals, the jaunty and infectious "Amandalyn" will get toes tapping, while the homage "You'll Find Monroe Written There" (featuring a Danny Knicely guitar break that you will be rewinding) finds Merl paying respect to every mandolinists' rightful hero. Merl also pays homage to another hero, his father Bob Johnson, with the inclusion of two of his songs, "In Those Hills," a love-letter to the state of Virginia, and the sacred song "Power of Prayer."
Merl couldn't have assembled a better band to cover the material amassed for this album. Hearing venerable Dick Smith play the banjo is a treat for any fan of D.C. bluegrass, the rhythm section of Danny Knicely and Stefan Custodi more than posses the versatility necessary to traverse the divergent material presented herein, and Jay Starling providing wonderful texture with his dobro-playing and tenor vocals. It all culminates in one vibrant album, put together by one of the vibrant lights in bluegrass music, Merl Johnson - Joseph Scott