Last Friday, North Texas country fans woke up to the devastating news that beloved local singer-songwriter Jay Johnson died on Thursday night. A Facebook post from Rebecca Scott, Johnson's constant companion and biggest fan, shared the sad — and to many, shocking — news that Johnson had taken his own life. As Friday morning rolled into Friday evening, Facebook and Twitter were flush with great stories, memories and pictures of Johnson in his trademark tie-dye shirts and bandanas.
"He was a songwriter's songwriter," says Troy Cartwright, perhaps North Texas' most promising young up-and-coming country singer-songwriter. "But he was also a wonderful friend, the kind of friend who would call just to tell you how a line in a song affected him."
A few years ago, I helped organize a benefit concert, and Johnson and Scott were more than willing participants. Over the few weeks between booking Johnson for the show and him performing, he and Scott promoted the show and its cause with fervor. I was with Johnson when he was able to sit in on Justin Frazell's old 99.5 Front Porch radio show, where he managed to make the musicians and the radio pros in the room practically break down in tears to a couple of his more tender tunes. He then performed an in-store at Bill's Records in Dallas, where he had everyone groaning with uncomfortable laughter during a particularly ribald version of Garth Brooks' "If Tomorrow Never Comes."
In both instances, he didn't bother much with promoting his latest album or talk about what he had in the pipeline. On the day of the benefit show, after he performed a couple of songs, he passed a hat around the room and comically badgered the attendees to put a few bucks into the hat for the cause. It worked, and as I would later find out, Johnson was a master of that, because he performed at many benefit shows. He was giving of his time and talents, and had perfected the art of working the crowd when the need arose.
Over that short period of time, I shared many laughs with Johnson and Scott and was fortunate enough to have a front-row seat to a loving man living life by his own rules, and making everyone around him want to play by the same rules as him.
There are a couple of common traits that Johnson's friends and fans quickly refer to when speaking of him: his humor and his kindness. Indeed, in my short time of interacting with him, those were certainly my big takeaways. Over the past couple years, Johnson had seemingly been busier performing than ever, whether taking his guitar along to yet another benefit show or holding court during his residency at Love and War in Texas. As recently as June 13, Johnson performed with an all-star line-up including the O's, Gary P. Nunn, Austin Cunningham, Zane Williams and Matt Hillyer of Eleven Hundred Springs to benefit the North Texas Prostate Cancer Coalition. He was adored by his peers as much or more as he was by the folks who wore their own tie-dyed shirts to so many of his shows.
One of the performers Johnson impacted most was Cartwright. Cartwright met Johnson a couple of years back when he moved back to the Dallas area after spending some time up north for school. Johnson was a big deal to him.
"Jay loved to build other people up; he was a giver and such a wonderful soul," he says of Johnson. "He took me under his wing the first night we met and has been one of my biggest cheerleaders ever since. I will miss him tremendously. His loss is a blow to me personally and to so many others who will miss his laugh and his larger-than-life presence."
Matt Hillyer, lead-singer of Eleven Hundred Springs, has been around the North Texas country scene as long as Johnson was. He crossed paths with Johnson countless times over the years, and his appreciation for Johnson the man and the artist only grew.
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"Jay was an extremely talented man," Hillyer says. "We knew each other for about 20 years but were closest in the last two. He really cared a lot about the craft of songwriting. No words were meaningless to him. His point of view was truly unique."
As is often the case when a friend unexpectedly leaves this world, Cartwright's main concern is about what we can never know when someone is gone. Such a concern is surely being felt across Texas this week as friends, family and fans try to focus on the good times that came with knowing and loving Johnson. Cartwright's thoughts veer away from music and towards the driving force of life itself.
"I hope he knows how much we all love him."