For all the Labor Day traditions St. Louisans hold dear — a Cardinals homestand, one last trip to the lake — fans of blues music have long held the annual Big Muddy Blues Festival as a highlight of the year, not just the long weekend. It's a yearly reminder of our city's contribution to the blues canon, and the downtown location calls to mind the Mississippi River's literal and figurative presence in the evolution of the genre.
The 2016 iteration of Big Muddy was especially noteworthy; not only was the brand-new National Blues Museum one of the venues, but all the acts — 45 in total — were St. Louis musicians. For the headlining set on the main stage, Jeremiah Johnson, an artist steeped in tradition but not beholden to its boundaries, had the honors of closing down the festival.
"I would say that's a testimony to how many great blues musicians we have in this city, period," Johnson says of the all-local booking. "I was pretty proud of it, and especially proud of being the headliner on the last night." Johnson and his band were hot off a new release, Blues Heart Attack, an album that shows his dexterity with gritty, twang-addled twelve-bar blues while allowing for movements toward soul, country and New Orleans traditions.
Blues Heart Attack is the latest in a string of albums for Johnson, as he and his band release an LP every few years. But this one was a sort of homecoming, as he and his trio — Jeff Girardier on bass and Benet Schaeffer on drums — recorded with Jason McEntire at Sawhorse Studio in south St. Louis. Johnson's last LP, Grind, was recorded in Memphis, with Devon Allman behind the board and award-winning session musicians filling in for Johnson's regular cohorts. Here, though, he brings it all back home: Along with his trio, Johnson enlisted a few locals such as Nathan Hershey (organ and piano), Frank Bauer (tenor saxophone) and Tom "Papa" Ray (harmonica) to fill out the sound.
"The cool part about this one is that we start out writing as a three-piece, so they had a real nice arrangement," Johnson says of the writing process. "It just felt like the whole thing blew up and exploded — it just made the whole thing kind of grow." Hershey in particular fills in the gaps nicely on a song like the hard-edged "Room of Fools," and his overdriven Hammond B3 matches the mood. Bauer's sax work was so convincing that he has become the official fourth member of Johnson's band.
For his part, Johnson holds court on these songs through both his muscular guitar work — unflashy, metallic, and usually good for a payoff at the end of his solos — and his voice, which is rich and forceful, often as indebted to Southern rock as much as anything from the Mississippi Delta. "Southern Drawl" speaks to that identity; it lacks the pop sheen of a modern country song, but with a little gloss it would be easy to imagine the track on a country radio station. In it, Johnson sings of simple pleasures — Johnny Cash is on his radio, Lynyrd Skynyrd is on his mind and whiskey is likely on his breath — as he plants his flag in his little patch of land. "I'm holding onto my Southern drawl," he sings. Johnson was born and raised in St. Louis but his family line comes from Kentucky, though it wasn't until he moved to Texas that the song came about.
"I wrote that song when I lived in Houston," he explains. "A big part of it is that I have a Southern background, so I always had that Southern side of my family. I actually think that St. Louis in general is a mix of city, country and all the things I hear in my music. You hear a little bit of that Mardi Gras in there; there's a jazz element in some of the songs. I think it's hard to define what St. Louis blues music is to some people, because we're all these things — a little funk, a little rock, a little soul."
Blues fans across the globe are starting to take notice; Blues Heart Attack has spent a few weeks in the top 10 of the Billboard Blues Charts and Johnson has received airplay from blues radio programmers across Europe. Johnson keeps his chart position in perspective, though he's understandably happy with the recognition. "I'm flattered and I'm excited," he says. "I realize that I'm not gonna keep up with Eric Clapton or Bonnie Raitt, but I'm knocking on the door."