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Sometimes, with music, you're lucky enough to be present to watch the first time that a collaboration among artists becomes greater than the sum of its parts. That happened to me recently when I saw the first four-piece practice of a country band that now calls itself the Rock Ridge Johnsons.
The two core members, singer/guitarist Jeremiah Johnson (a.k.a. Jeremy Marcanti), 28, and standup bass player Olson Johnson (a.k.a. Chris Barrett), 29, along with their recently recruited veteran drummer Mongo Johnson, just played Hillgrass Bluebilly's monstrous July 4 extravaganza at the Rhythm Room, with Heather Rae and the Moonshine Boys, Jesse Dayton, and others.
That incarnation was known as the Red Mountain Drifters. But now, with the addition of Gabby Johnson another musician with years of experience under his belt on guitar, the transformation into the Rock Ridge Johnsons is complete, and I'm pondering the alchemy these two young dudes employed to go from relatively unknown punk kids playing around with acoustic music to becoming genuine players in the Valley's thriving country scene.
Sitting in the living room watching the Rock Ridge Johnsons practice acoustically gives a special feeling of watching something new, organic, and musically pure materialize. With no amplification, just fingers on strings and brushes on a snare drum, the Johnsons run through the midtempo "Dead to Rights," where Jeremiah's drawling vocal lament coasts over Olson's bass lines. Gabby watches Jeremiah's guitar strumming and augments the tune with the second guitar, while Mongo's flair with the brushes provides a cattle-trot rhythm.
Jeremiah and Olson scored by recruiting experienced players to their band, but it's also their "aw, shucks" enthusiasm for the music that makes their songs genuine.
Jeremiah and Olson Johnson don't want to lean on the pedigrees of the new guitarist and drummer (we'll give it away here, though: Gabby is Rich Merriman of the Maricopa County Prison Band, and Mongo is Vince Ramirez of Flathead), but the fact that they've managed to impress and recruit them speaks volumes about both the talent and the modesty of these two young bucks. Possessing the ability to impress your artistic forebears to the extent that they'll work with you is rare, and that's one of the reasons I'm impressed with this band.
The Rock Ridge Johnsons' name is a reference to the fictional frontier town (Rock Ridge) and the last name of the characters in the classic Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles, which is playing silently in the background as we bullshit about how a couple of twentysomethings with punk rock backgrounds managed to maneuver themselves into a prime spot in the local alt-country scene with the backing talents of two of said scene's luminaries. "Honestly, I think it was dumb luck," Olson tells me as he swigs off a Bud Light, "which has been the case with everything in this band so far."
"I don't know that it's 'cause we're so great musically or that we're just fun guys to hang out with or whether it's 'cause we have the right attitude about it," Jeremiah says. "I'm just stoked, because with the music I'm writing right now, having these guys play with us is way cooler because I don't have to explain things they understand, they know what's going on."
Indeed they do. Although this is the first practice with Gabby playing the second guitar, the mind meld among the four is obvious, even when the beer drinking's factored in.
Jeremiah and Olson may be new to the country game, but music's been their passion for a long time now. "I didn't even know that many [country] bands were around 'til we started playing shows," Jeremiah says. "I didn't feel comfortable playing in a punk band again. I did the metal thing, and it was fun if you want 13-year-old boys with zits coming to all your shows and no chicks or nothing."
Predictably, it was the standards Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Sr. in particular that got the boys inspired to strum hillbilly songs. "Blues, punk, country it all comes from downtrodden people," Jeremiah says. "Folk, too. It's so down-to-earth, so natural. People can relate with it."
The veteran players, Gabby and Mongo, could relate to the younger guys as well. "They seemed like an especially kind couple of guys," Mongo tells me, "and they seemed really desperate at the time. I took pity on them, and next thing I know, we're playing a show, and it's pretty cool shit."
For Gabby, his addition to the band fulfilled an urge to play in a different context. "Mongo and I'd been talking lately about how we'd played in a band a long time ago together and we had a lot of fun. I forget the [band's] name, but we played for a couple of years together. Mongo met up with these guys and we liked their stuff."
The veterans could carry the Rock Ridge Johnsons a long way in Phoenix's roiling alt-country scene. The addition of the expert talent has pushed them to take their musicianship to new heights. "I'm always the worst musician I know," Olson says with characteristic humility. "But just talking with other musicians, it's all a learning experience. I just try and soak it up."
It's obviously working for them, and I'm not the only one who's feeling it. "That's been my favorite thing about playing this kind of music," Jeremiah says. "So many people like it."