Derek Johnson Q&A

Derek Johnson will never stop playing bluegrass music.

“Musicians really don’t retire. They might not travel as far, or gig as often but it’s really a part of who you are. I may move on from the road some day and settle down with a day job but I will always be performing music in some fashion. It’s in my blood.”

You started out playing in rock bands but then discovered bluegrass. What was that moment like when you heard it?

I have always had a wide taste in music. When I was in grade school I fell in love with the Beatles. In fact, I learned to play the guitar by learning the chords from Beatles songbooks. I dabbled in punk rock in my early teens and then devoured classic rock in high school before moving on to prog rock. In college I developed a love for jazz and what, at the time, was called world music. Along the way I took in some bluegrass music. I always had an appreciation for the genre and always dabbled in it here and there but didn’t really get hooked until the end of the ’90s.

After college I ended up in Minneapolis and headed up a three-piece band named Best Fight Story. My songwriting at the time was a bit esoteric, but it could best be described as roots rock or Americana. The bass player was my younger brother. He was getting more interested in expanding his musical horizons and decided to pick up the mandolin. Now, I had previously attended some bluegrass festivals and folk festivals but it was really the Minnesota Bluegrass Festival in 2001 where I really fell for the music. I loved the idea of not needing amplification to play highly energetic music. At the festival I not only found myself surrounded by some of the most talented musicians I had ever jammed with, but they were also some of the nicest and most welcoming people I had ever met. It’s a great community. Compared to the rock-n-roll scene I found a lot more talent and a lot less attitude.

You grew up in Moorhead. What kind of music scene did it have when you lived up there? Now?

Moorhead was a great place to grow up. I had a tight group of friends. Not only that, they were talented as well. We started making music together in our junior high years. By college we were playing sets of entirely original music. We also had supportive parents. They all took turns hosting the band. I’m not sure how they put up with all that racket but they did. Maybe they were just happy to know what we were up to. My dad taught at Concordia College, so it was cheap for me to get a higher education. It would have been foolish for me to go away for college but what really kept me around was having a band and some venues to play our original music. If we weren’t onstage at Kirby’s we were there watching other bands play. Kirby’s was on the circuit for all the up-and-coming Minneapolis bands. And right across the street was a hang-out bar named Ralph’s. It’s where the cool kids from Concordia and Moorhead State hung out, including all the other local musicians who played in original rock bands. It was a fun time.

Today Moorhead is kind of the boring town, except Junkyard Brewery, and Fargo has become the hip place. Downtown Fargo was dead when I was growing up. Now it’s quite vibrant and there are quite a few music venues and some really talented musicians.

In the early 2000s I was making the transition from Rock ‘n’ roll and made the transition to bluegrass. I was jamming with some guys, getting some gigs and learning the ropes. In 2006 I helped form the band The High 48s. We recorded four CDs in four years but were more or less just a regional act. In 2011 I was asked to join Monroe Crossing, a full time, touring band. In my first few months with them I went from California to Georgia, performed on a bluegrass cruise out of Florida and then flew off to Europe. It was quite the introduction to the road.

You not only perform in bluegrass books but book acts. Is the business side something you enjoy? What advice do you give bands?

The guitar player I replaced in Monroe Crossing was also the booking agent for the band. He remained the booking agent until about 2017. At that point I took over as the booking agent. Monroe Crossing is now in our 22nd year and we aren’t getting any younger. We decided to back off our bookings a bit. At our peak we were playing 125 dates a year. So, with a slightly reduced schedule I took over the bookings for my old band The High 48s. I also teamed up with my replacement in The High 48s, a great guitar player named Clint Birtzer. We have a bluegrass duo named Gentlemen Dreadnought. I also handle those bookings. I have umbrellaed the whole operation under the name D String Productions.

I developed some booking experience throughout the years, but when I became responsible for a full time band I found it a bit intimidating and a bit outside my wheelhouse, but like anything, if you just keep plugging away you slowly learn the ropes and develop your skills. As the poet Charles Bukowski said, “one learns survival by surviving.”

I’ve always had good organizational skills and enough self-discipline but I wasn’t much of a salesman, which is definitely part of the job. Like any decent salesman, you need to develop some thick skin. You definitely need to be thick-skinned when booking bands. Music is such a subjective thing that you can’t take it to heart when someone just isn’t into what you are doing. Yeah, rejection is a drag but there are a lot of factors in not getting the gig. It may have little to do with the actual music you are producing. You just have to cast a big net and find the connections where you can. Once you have your ‘in’ you need to show up and put on a professional show. Not just onstage, but off stage as well.

My advice to young musicians is to try to separate the artistry from the business side of things. Be passionate about creating art, producing art and performing your art. Don’t be emotional about the business. Instead, be deliberate, methodical, organized and …well … business-like.

You’re in Monroe Crossing, which is named for Bill Monroe. Who are some of your other all-time bluegrass faves?

There are a lot of different sub-genres in the bluegrass world today. People have morphed a lot of different styles into the traditional sound which was created by Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs back in the mid-1940s. I appreciate all the different styles of bluegrass but I’m partial to the traditional sound. The more progressive sound (rock & jam band influenced) is fun but what really impresses me the most is a well-crafted song with a strong melody and lyrics. I also love the three-part harmony singing of traditional bluegrass, which isn’t so prevalent in some of the modern off-shoots.

Some of my favorites traditional artists are: Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Flatt & Scruggs and The Stanley Brothers. Some of my favorite second-generation artists are: The Osborne Brothers, Jim & Jesse, Del McCoury and Tony Rice.

A current band on the scene today which has a traditional sound is the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys. Another one of my favorite contemporary bluegrass artists is Billy Strings. He is an exciting performer and has a great approach. He’s an excellent guitar player and singer. He also writes a lot of original songs. He can have a modern sound, stretching the song out in jam band like fashion, even adding distortion and other effects to his acoustic guitar. Then, the next song will be a straight up, three-minute, traditional bluegrass number. He takes the genre to new heights but also has great respect for the tradition.

The kind of guitar playing in bluegrass is known as flat-picking. Simply put, you use a pick to strum the guitar but also to pick out melody notes. It involves an up and down picking motion. Since a lot of bluegrass songs are quite fast this is a rather difficult task, especially on an acoustic guitar. An electric guitar is, physically, much easier to play. In bluegrass, when a guitarist takes a solo they often play a string of eighth or even 16th notes picked in rapid fashion. It took me a long time to make the transition from electric lead playing to bluegrass lead playing. I try to practice at least five days a week. I try to get the guitar in my hands every day even if it’s just for 30 to 45 minutes. You need to stay in shape.

Like many bluegrass musicians, I play more than one instrument. Recently I’ve added mandolin to my practice regimen. I enjoy the challenge of learning a new instrument. I find the two complement each other nicely.

In the end, I am not really driven to be a great soloist. It ain’t going to happen anyway. I really enjoy being a good rhythm guitar player. Good rhythm playing is underrated. I like using the guitar to accompany my singing. It’s actually the vocals in bluegrass I like the most. I like the soulful delivery of melody as well as the harmony singing. I also enjoy writing music.

I’ve written quite a few songs over the years. In bluegrass you are writing within a simple, defined formula. Pretty much verse and chorus. When I write a song I usually come up with a line and melody for a chorus. After I define a chorus, I come up with the melody and lyrics for the verses. I often get a good start on a song and then it gets shelved for a while. Then one day, when I’m inspired, I will finish it off. My songwriting has usually been something I do when I am inspired but that isn’t the most productive method, especially when you are on the road or busy at the desk handling the booking. Lately I’ve been trying to be more disciplined and find time to devote to the actual craft of songwriting. But I must admit, some of the best songs are the ones that just kind of fall into your lap in a short amount of time. One example is a gospel tune I wrote quite a few years ago named “Joy, Joy, Joy.” Gospel music is a big part of traditional bluegrass. It was in the church where a lot of the early artists developed their harmony singing. I guess the same can be said for me. Gospel songs are some of the prettiest tunes in traditional bluegrass and are fun to sing. So, when I started writing bluegrass songs, I thought I better try my hand at a gospel tune. The song came to me quickly. I wrote it all in one sitting. Out of all my original songs it is the one which garners the most requests when playing with Monroe Crossing.

What is next for you?

All of us in the music business are now just starting to recover from a year and a half, forced hiatus. The pandemic slammed the brakes on our industry. Personally, I used the time to record a solo album. It contains 14 tracks total with six new original numbers. I used 19 different guest musicians from Minnesota and Wisconsin. Because we were isolated at home, we never met to practice any of the songs. I would send them basic tracks of the material and they would record their parts at home and email them to me. I kind of assembled the whole thing on the computer but did my best to maintain a live sounding feel. It was kind of one big experiment but I think it was successful in the end. The album is named Hard Life.

It’s hard to say what’s next. Keep on keeping on, I guess. Musicians really don’t retire. They might not travel as far, or gig as often but it’s really a part of who you are. I may move on from the road some day and settle down with a day job but I will always be performing music in some fashion. It’s in my blood.