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Singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston owes much of his newfound prominence to the fledgling Adult Album Alternative (or Triple A) radio format birthed by Boulder's KBCO-FM--and he knows it. But that doesn't mean he spends a lot of time absorbing music made by the other artists whose careers have been boosted by this broadcasting approach.
"Maybe I'm afraid of copping their thing or being too much like them," he says. "All I know is that I listen to different types of music than I play and write. For example, I'm a big fan of the Fall [a veteran punk/noise band from England]. But I don't think there's any of what they do in my music."
No, indeed: Johnston's approach to his craft is far more traditional and accessible. He makes fine, moving folk-pop songs with recognizable melodies and structures that are as solid as those utilized by Woody Guthrie. His dour lyrics and strong reedy voice distinguish his material, but the work itself fits snugly into the Triple A category. "People say, `That Freedy Johnston--he's just like John Hiatt, isn't he?'" Johnston notes, laughing. "Or, `Hey, he sounds sort of like Nanci Griffith with hair on her chest.' Or, `Isn't he the guy in the Crash Test Dummies?'"
Like these peers, Johnston hardly resembles the prototypical pop star. His features are commonplace, and his hairline is doing the kind of end run that has prompted him to make a hat part of his regular fashion ensemble. This everyman look is perfectly in keeping with the character of his songs. As is clear from This Perfect World, his debut album for Elektra, Johnston is an espouser of old-fashioned verities--a musical Forrest Gump with a notably higher I.Q.
Johnston was born in the smallish burg of Kinsley, Kansas. His formative years were hardly extraordinary. "I was one of those guys who drove around a lot and listened to Cheap Trick and Led Zeppelin," he recalls. "I might have been a little more hip than the guys who listened to Bob Seger and REO Speedwagon--I also liked Elvis Costello and Steely Dan. But mostly, I'd listen to heavy stuff and hang out by the river drinking beer and smoking pot. That was my experience."
This worldview broadened considerably when Johnston moved to the college town of Lawrence, Kansas. Suddenly, he discovered people his age with knowledge about music and film that never made it to Kinsley. He also rediscovered classic country music of the sort that had played in the background of his earliest memories. "Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Merle Haggard, George Jones--I'd heard all of their music when my dad would take me to the honky-tonk," he notes. "I didn't hate it, but I just disregarded it. Then I learned how deep and important it was to me."
In 1985, having absorbed everything he could from Lawrence, Johnston relocated in New York City and tried to get noticed by record-company types. It took him a while, but within five years he'd landed a deal with Bar None Records, an independent imprint based in Hoboken, New Jersey. His first album, 1990's The Trouble Tree, won some warm notices but couldn't be considered a commercial blockbuster. Johnston had to use money he earned selling a farm he inherited from his grandfather to finish 1992's Can You Fly. Fortunately, Fly was a better seller and earned universally warm notices--although you couldn't prove it by Johnston.
"I can't read my reviews," he admits. "I've tried in the past, but I'd get so wound up. I'd either be really happy or really down. If they misinterpreted something or even if they made the slightest negative comment, I'd be like, `What do you mean? How can you not like this? Come on...'"
Reading the critiques of This Perfect World likely wouldn't cause Johnston to lose much sleep. Most critics have responded favorably to strong, melancholy selections such as "Bad Reputation" (the first single), "Evie's Tears" and "Disappointed Man," as well as to the production touches of Butch Vig, a man primarily known for his work with alternative acts Nirvana and Sonic Youth. "Butch was probably more of a logical choice than I would have thought at first," Johnston says. He sounds surprised as he adds, "He worked really hard on the record, and he liked my music."
So does the target audience of Triple A radio, and Johnston thinks he knows why. "The sales of acoustic guitars in the U.S. are up--that's a marketing fact," he states. "And the growth of interest in singer-songwriters could also have to do with the aging population. I'm 33, and I know I'm making different music now than I would have at 23."
Freedy Johnston. 9:30 p.m. Thursday, August 11, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $8, 294-9258.