Some artists need smoke and mirrors. All Jeremiah Johnson needs are songs. In the age of manufactured pop, the acclaimed St. Louis bandleader is a beacon of time-honoured songcraft, writing on acoustic guitar, digging deep for raw lyrics and insisting on studio production that bottles the sweat of his shows. The approach might sound old-school, but on latest record Heavens To Betsy, the result is some of the most vital music of the new decade.
Released in 2020 on Ruf Records, Heavens To Betsy is another bold creative leap for an artist on fire. It’s been just two years since Straitjacket hit #6 on the Billboard Blues Album chart and scored rave reviews across the board (Blues Blast: “This is grade-A primo stuff”). It was the cherry on top of Johnson’s triumphant early career, following up 2014’s Grind, 2016’s varied Blues Heart Attack, and the confessional Ride The Blues documentary.
But while Johnson is rightly proud of that early catalogue – and still serves up house-rocking takes on the Straitjacket material each night – he’s always kept one eye on the horizon. “On Heavens To Betsy, I wanted to try something different than any of my previous releases. I really took the ‘song first’ concept and got back to my roots in blues-based Southern rock.”
The spectre of the US South can be felt in every fiery lick and blue-collar observational lyric. Yet Heavens To Betsy is no exercise in autopilot roadhouse blues. The raging sax of Frank Bauer, either backing up or butting heads with Johnson’s driving guitar, has always given the band an added dimension, and with the addition of former Devon Allman percussionist Tony Antonelli, the groove goes all over the map. “We have a more tribal, rhythmic feel now,” notes Johnson, “like the Black Crowes and the Allman Brothers.”
Confident that his band could handle whatever he threw at them in Memphis’s High/Low Recording studio, Heavens To Betsy represents Johnson’s boldest writing yet. Try White Lightning, the lyric penned from the perspective of a struggling Southern farmer, powered by money-lick sax and wah pedal. Try the doubled licks of Tornado, its lyric saluting a wildcat lover (“She’s a hot cup of coffee on a bumpy road”). Or put your foot down with the hard-driving Castles In The Air and American Steel: a salute to the joy of the US freeway.
Nobody does escapism better, but Johnson stands apart with his eloquence on more poignant topics. “Leo Stone is about the overwhelming joy I had while my fiancée was in the final stages of her pregnancy,” he says of this open-hearted, country-flavoured highlight, named for his new-born son. “Long Way Home is about my grandmother, who suffered terribly from dementia, and the story of the last time she remembered who I was. Forever And A Day was written while I was away from my family on a European tour. Sometimes it can seem like an eternity.”
Like all the best records, Heavens To Betsy didn’t come easy. Johnson tells of long days under producer Pete Matthews, sometimes catching the spark in the first take, sometimes at the end of a twelve-hour day. “Recording this record was absolutely the most intense experience I’ve ever had in a studio. Good enough was not an option. But I’m extremely thankful that Pete pushed everyone to get the best out of every performance.”
These songs deserved nothing less. On Heavens To Betsy, Jeremiah Johnson has delivered on his mission statement – and then some – with a record that demands to soundtrack the moments of life that matter. “I want this record to be something you’ll want to crank up when you’re with your friends and celebrating life,” he considers. “I want people to throw this record in the stereo and get a kick in the ass…”