'Up Close' with Eric Johnson
Austin guitar virtuoso's secret ambition is to get coffee for his heroes
Just about a year ago, the famously picky Austin guitar virtuoso Eric Johnson said he was approximately THIS CLOSE to finishing his next record, "Up Close," and promised it would be out soon.
It came out last week.
But let the guy explain. The record has been done for four months. He did go back and re-cut two songs, wrote and recorded another and generally fiddled, as is his habit. But:
"True to form, that's my usual mode of operations. One month means a year," Johnson, 56, said. "But this record happened significantly quicker for me."
In his further defense, the guy's on the road enough to make WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange look like a homebody, and he'll be going out again next month with Andy McKee and Peppino D'Agostino on the acoustic Guitar Masters road show.
But for now he's home and eager to talk about his sixth studio album — this one done in the home studio he's been building for 15 years. (Royalty checks, when they came in, paid for it.)
"I wanted to take honest, hard looks at what I've been doing over the years, what worked and what didn't, try to make it a little looser, a little more spontaneous," he said. "It's trying to reach the summit. And once you reach the summit you've got to have the ability to step back and see it."
Indeed, for all Johnson's technical mastery of the guitar and breadth of skills — he's also classically trained on the piano, sings, writes and produced the new album (with the exception of one track) at his home studio here — the rap on him has long been that his records could be somewhat airless affairs. There is a greater looseness at work here, in part because of the contributions of guests such as Steve Miller, Jimmie Vaughan, Malford Milligan, Jonny Lang and Sonny Landreth. Stylistically, the record takes a purposeful meander, instrumental and vocal, from fusion to rock to country to something perilously close to easy listening. One standout is the old Electric Flag rip, "Texas." After hearing that, a case could be made that Johnson is at his best when he's doing straight blues, but he's too modest to admit it.
"I'm not a traditional blues player," he says. "There are other people that do it so wonderfully."
Regardless of genre, what Johnson does wonderfully is apply his formidable chops in service to the song. Very much like Jeff Beck, he's more interested in chasing the perfect tone than the spoils of stardom. And unlike 90 percent of the masters, Johnson's technique is not the point, it's intended to convey the emotional core of the song. With uncommonly supple and melodic fretwork, it's plain this guy has something he wants to express besides, "Look at how great I am."
"That's from growing up on all my heroes, Stevie Wonder and Jimi Hendrix," Johnson says. "Most of them are such accomplished musicians but it doesn't overshadow the song. That's why people will be talking about Hendrix a hundred years from now. It's just timeless, wonderful music."
One might say the same about Johnson, who's been turning heads since the 1970s, when he was in Mariani and Electromagnetics. Johnny Winter first heard Johnson when he was 16 and was quoted as saying he wished he could have played that well at his age. (Johnson, for his part, remembers seeing Winter at the old Vulcan Gas Company. Cover was 50 cents. That, friends, is Old Austin.)
Guitar Player magazine put him on its cover before his first record came out with the memorable headline, "Who is Eric Johnson and Why is He on Our Cover?" The magazine later named him best overall guitarist four years in a row and one of the 100 best of the 20th century.
He's a Grammy winner. He's taped three "Austin City Limits" episodes. Fender designed a Stratocaster to his specs.
Perhaps the highest honor? He recently got to play "Are You Experienced" on Hendrix's Woodstock Strat.
"I was pretty stoked about that. I almost ran out of the back of the building with it," he says.
On top of all that, he's played with approximately everybody — Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, B.B. King, Hendrix compadres Billy Cox and the late Mitch Mitchell.
This could go on all day, right? Better to simply ask the guy if there's anybody alive he hasn't worked with that he'd like to. He doesn't hesitate.
"Stevie Wonder," he says. "I've let people know who know him I'll work for free for him. And I've always loved Joni Mitchell. I'd love to do an acoustic duet record with her."
He pauses a beat and lets his musing get a little more ambitious:
"Joni, Stevie and me — that's the new trio band. If nothing else, I'll just go get coffee for them."