March 15, 2002

HomeBaked Beats

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There is a cult whose hero is in our midst, a man quickly approaching the status of legend. One of the few true rock and roll stars, and yet a humble, matter-of-fact sort of guy — an honest everyman. He owns a moving company by day and plays raw and emotional country noir by night. The man regarded by many as one of the greatest voices of current rock music in our own Johnny Dowd.

Most rockers — most musicians in general — make their entrance far too early in their lifespan (see modern radio). Albums full of hardship and painful insight are released by spoiled teenagers, casting a doubting light on the authenticity of much of today’s music. Rarely and shockingly there comes along some one who delves into the time-worn and wisened recesses of his or her heart or soul and expresses something chillingly honest. Johnny Dowd kept his creative genius primarily to himself until his debut album, Wrong Side of Memphis. The album was recorded on 4-track in Dowd’s home and was released after he had already lived half a century, an age when most rockers are retired in their rocking (not rockin’) chairs, releasing their anthologies or still taking the stage as a personification of death (see Keith Richards). Dowd unexpectedly found himself atop a number of lists at the end of 1997, and he was widely hailed as a new savior of lo-fi ethics.

Although Dowd does not resemble death in the Rolling Stones sense, that’s not to say that death isn’t high on his list of subject matter. His wardrobe is predominantly black and his songs are generally dark and gothic. Dowd has restored the murder ballad style of writing once used by another Johnny in black, the legendary Johnny Cash.

The beauty of Dowd’s music is beneath the often depressive, almost morbid stories he tells. In the live setting, the he taps into an enigmatic fountain of the blues-rock tradition. We see and hear traces of early Jim Morrison, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, and Captain Beefheart. But althogether something unique and chilling occurs. He is usually joined, in the studio and live, by the unhumanly talented Brian Wilson (not the Beach Boy), who hits the skins while smultaneously controlling a bass keyboard pedal with his foot, leaving audiences wondering where the bass player is hiding. Kim Sherwood-Caso, while not running her local hair salon, provides a haunting, stoical foil to Dowd’s brooding monotone swagger. Justin Asher adds his heated and experimental guitarwork, rounding out the mainstays of the Johnny Dowd Band.

Amidst his tales of sinners, retribution, homicide, and the sewers of our souls, Dowd offers priceless bits of age-earned wisdom. On “Thanksgiving Day” from Memphis he sings “Be content with your life/ It might no get any better.” That’s not the most optimistic advice, but it rings with a brutal honesty too rare in most music.

Dowd is almost cursed by critical acclaim. Dowd never craves or seeks the attention, and it is perhaps for this reason that it just comes to him. And even more telling and valuable is the attention and praise of fellow musicians. Kevin Kinsella (frontman of John Brown’s Body, whose upbeat reggae may seem far on the spectrum from Dowd’s gothic rock) proclaims an inspirational debt to his friend. “Just Like A Dog,” from his solo record, I-Town Revival, is inspired by Dowd’s song of the same name. Kinsella calls Dowd “a great lyricist” and “the real deal.” There is a nostalgiac quality for Kinsella, who recalls his early years as a musician when Dowd was just another local workin’ man with a band on the side. Neon Baptist was that band, and Dowd shared it and his trucking business with long-time friend Dave Hinkle. “Booking shows around moving dates with his trucking company — that’s the real deal,” asserts Kinsella. Kevin, like all that have the pleasure of knowing Johnny, have lost track of all the stories about him. “I was at the Tractor Barn in Seattle, and on the wall were written some of Johnny’s lyrics,” Kevin recalls. This testifies to the power of Dowd’s unpretentious honesty and almost unsettling insight.

The Johnny Dowd Band is currently touring the Midwest. His fourth studio album, The Painbroker’s Wife, should be released here in the States. Dowd claims the new collection includes “experiments with some love songs” and a funk version of “Jingle Bells.” Mr. Dowd, I’ll be listening.

Archived article by Ben Kupstas