Go the Distance

Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote, "Earth's crammed with heaven," and if you believe Will Johnson, most of it is crammed into Mississippi. To him, you can see heaven driving north on Highway 61, on the way to Clarksdale, or when you're sitting on the banks of the Yazoo River, surrounded by dragonflies and the ghost of legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. Heaven, to Will Johnson, is where Muddy Waters once lived, where Sonny Boy Williamson is buried and where Charley Patton--the original king of the Delta blues, the man who influenced them all--played his "Pony Blues" at juke joints and plantation dances. You can see it whether you're standing in the middle of William Faulkner's house or in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere.

That's why Johnson (Centro-matic's singer-songwriter-guitarist) and Keith Killoren (who fronts Budapest One and presided over Johnson's wedding) spent four days there a few weeks ago, armed with little more than a pair of guitars and some cold beer. It wasn't a vacation; it was a pilgrimage to a holy land of American music and literature, to places like Tutwiller (where Williamson is buried) and Oxford (where Faulkner lived), a chance to, as Johnson says, "chase ghosts." The trip to Mississippi was a long time coming for Johnson, who admits to "a hearty obsession" he nurses with old books and records, and from the way he speaks of it, he could have spent four months there, combing through the history and mystery of the state.

"Man, I'm still just kind of reeling from it," Johnson says. He's on the phone, presumably, to talk about Centro-matic's sixth and latest album, Distance and Clime, which comes out August 14 on Idol Records, but that seems beside the point right now. "I'm still just sitting in kind of silent bliss every time I think about it. I'm hard-pressed to, I don't know, find another place that really affected me quite like that. So much beauty, and so much sparseness and mystery. It's a beautiful and solemn place. I got a little misty sitting there at Robert Johnson's grave just considering what an origin, what ground zero that is for everything that we surround all ourselves in daily. Thinking, good God, this guy gets maybe 200 visitors a year to his grave, and freaking Jim Morrison's got like a margarita stand next to his grave. Not that'd I'd want a margarita stand next to Johnson's grave."

That doesn't mean he and Killoren didn't bring home a souvenir of their visit. But it wasn't exactly a Hard Rock Café T-shirt. "We went to the foundation of Muddy Waters' boyhood home, where [Alan] Lomax came in and they did all of the Library of Congress recordings," Johnson says. "Keith found a little T-fitting for plumbing, and I mean, it's beaten to hell. It's rusted. It's got dirt crammed in there. It's really, really old; it looks at least 50, 60 years old. Who knows? And of course, you know, Keith snagged it. 'Oh, this is it. This is Muddy Waters' plumbing.' He was so excited, jumping around, rolling in the grass. Good God, I'm 30 years old, and I'm acting like a child out in a field in Mississippi. It was a very fulfilling trip."

Johnson's already planning a return visit, but for the moment, it's back to his piece of heaven in Texas, back to his wife, Kris, and their dogs, back to Denton and Centro-matic. Back to real life. According to him, lately, real life has meant he's "just been goofing off, recording a couple of songs." Of course, when Johnson says he's "just been goofing off, recording a couple of songs," he really means that the day before, he and drummer-producer Matt Pence recorded an entire new album, 16 songs in less than 24 hours. Since around 1996, Johnson's goofing off has resulted in around 120 songs, including the 15 on Distance and Clime, and those are just the ones he's released so far. Earlier this year, Johnson was writing and recording a new song every day before he went to bed, a practice he kept up from January 1 through the middle of March. In case you can't do the math in your head that quickly, that works out to about 70 new songs, some of which he re-recorded for the album he did with Pence yesterday. Just imagine how many they could have recorded if Johnson called in sick from work.

"I guess it was kind of a concept album," Johnson says. "It's interesting. It's just me sitting in a big-ass wooden room with a nylon-string guitar and that's about it. That's the concept, I guess. I mean, it was lightning-fast. We got all the guitar stuff done yesterday before I went to work, and then I came back last night about 10 and rambled through 16 songs or whatever, and that was it. And he was like, 'OK, that's pretty much what I had in mind for this release.' And I said, 'OK.' I wrote the songs [on it] over the course of, I guess, this past wintertime and spring. I was writing just a whole bunch of stuff at that point. And I just picked songs I thought sounded kinda cool on the nylon-string and just kinda ran with it that way. Not necessarily campfire tunes, but maybe more campfire-friendly, if nothing else."