Balsam Range wraps up concert seriesSaturday show to feature David Johnson, gospel
CANTON — With Easter right around the corner and Buddy Melton still on the mend, it seems only right that this Saturday’s Balsam Range concert should be no ordinary show. And that’s the plan. The end of the bluegrass stars’ winter concert series won’t just be a night of mountain-made music, but a celebration of faith. It will be an all-gospel show, with guest David Johnson in to lend a hand.
To Johnson, a lifelong veteran of gospel and bluegrass, the whole concept of the night just feels right.
“I can’t imagine what else musicians would do on the Saturday before Easter Sunday,” he said by phone a few days back.
Johnson is coming from more than five decades of experience in music and faith. It’s always been hard for the lifelong resident of little Purlear, North Carolina, to know where one ends and the other begins.
“It’s more than just music when you play gospel,” he said. “It’s a lifestyle. It’s a life-changing thing.”
It’s been that way as long as Johnson, now a recording artist and master of countless instruments, can remember. While a good deal of bluegrass players get their skills handed down through the generations, Johnson got a double dose of music genes, with players on both sides of the family. His parents played for radio stations in Wilkes County, and his father had a square dance band, and his grandparents, too, were musicians in their own right. In Johnson’s clan, music wasn’t a question. It was an assumption.
“I seriously thought everybody played music until I went to school and found out that wasn’t the case,” he said.
By that time, though, he was already hooked. He estimates he first started “trying to play” the guitar when he was between 4 and 5. Back then, he not only had his family to look up to, but Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who were filling the TV airwaves. Johnson remembers practicing for hours in the mirror, trying to get “the look,” as he called it. Country and bluegrass players had to have the perfect tilt of the hat and swagger in front of the mic — and just the right sound.
The music, of course, was the most important thing Johnson wanted to mimic. When it came to the array of instruments in his chosen genre, Johnson wasn’t content to play one or two. He ended up tackling the whole gamut, from fiddle to mandolin, dobro to bass and even pedal steer guitar and piano — and probably more.
“I just wanted to play them all,” he said.
No wonder when multi-track recording came out, allowing him to record several instrument tracks on one song, he remembers it being “magic.”
Johnson began recording when he was 15, and has always had at least one foot in the studio. On his own, he’s cut several solo records and had many national releases in recent history with Arden-based Crossroads music, the same outfit that works with Balsam Range.
For the most part, his last few years have been spent trying to make his fellow artists sound good, however. He likes to call himself a “side man for hire,” a player who can back up just about any kind of musician with a whole arsenal of instruments. Some days the job means actually going into a studio, and others it means recording from his home, but always it means getting to do what he loves. So far, he’s played alongside everyone from unknowns to the great Tony Rice to Johnson’s old friend, Tim Surrett.
“I get to work with people all over the country and all over the world, and it’s just a great living,” Johnson said.
While studio work is his life now, he stressed there is something special about playing live, which he still tries to do whenever he can.
“There’s an electricity to a crowd that sometimes you don’t get from a session,” he said. “I love playing live, and I love playing live with good friends that I don’t see often sometimes.”
Johnson is especially looking forward to the latter this weekend, when he and his Balsam Range buddies make music that speaks to a higher power. Though Melton may or may not attend, he’ll surely be there in spirit, which is fitting for a night filled with devotion, belief and good, good music.
Like any gospel show, Johnson hopes it gives something to people, beyond just a tune or two stuck in their heads. As ambitious as it sounds, he would like people to hear music that makes them reflect on things, from their own life and death to their relationship with God.
In his words, he wants to give them something “to send them on their way.”
More than anything, though, Johnson simply wants Saturday’s crowd to have a ball.
“I just hope that the folks that come, I hope they have a good time,” he said. “I hope they clap their hands and stomp their feet.”
Balsam Range’s final winter concert series this season will be at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 7, at Canton’s Colonial Theatre, 53 Park St. For more information about the band, including updates on its newest recordings and Melton’s steadily improving health, visit www.balsamrange.com or call 235-2760.