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By Tom Murphy
Johnson's professed affinity for Denver aside, you'd never know he was even a fan from listening to the raw, aching beauty in his voice, especially on the more contemplative South San Gabriel cuts or the utterly heartbreaking "Just to Know What You've Been Dreaming," from his solo album Vultures Await. There's just something in the way that he sings a song that makes you want to believe him.
That quality would certainly account for his list of recent collaborations. In addition to helming Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel, Johnson lent his talents to Patterson Hood for his forthcoming album (bassist Scott Danbom also played on the Drive-By Truckers frontman's record and appears on the Truckers' latest album, Brighter Than Creation's Dark), and last year, Centro-Matric toured with former Trucker Jason Isbell.
Johnson says the Truckers connection goes way back. "I can't see them as anything less than family at this point," he declares. "We've toured with them and made recordings together. We've just had an all-around good time being with each other for many, many years now. It's a really cool and fortunate friendship I think that has been forged with Jason and the Truckers over the years."
Last February, Johnson also made a record with an equally prolific songwriter, Jason Molina of Magnolia Electric Co. and Songs: Ohia. That album, which is expected to come out some time next year, was mostly written in the studio, like the Centro-Matic side of Dual Hawks. Johnson says he's gotten somewhat addicted to that in-the-moment style of writing in the studio.
"Each session and each record has got its own life because of things like that," Johnson insists, "things you could never really premeditate, nor could you go back and try to duplicate. There are just certain elements to each session that sort of make them like snowflakes. Every one's a little different. And so why not write a few things — maybe not the whole record — but why not write a few things then, there and in the moment, with the people that you're working next to?
"Every dynamic is going to change from year to year," he adds, "and your values and the subject matter of lyrics and things that are important to you are going to change from year to year, so why not keep a little bit of that in the moment, for what's right there in the studio? Just running jokes or humor or whatever the case may be. I think it's really important, because it's what makes every record kind of unique."