by James Leo
Orville Johnson is one of the greatest unsung treasures of the American folk music, a masterful elder statesman of the true hearted blues. He is a walking testament of the vibrancy of American roots music, a grand wise man of the acoustic folk blues.
He is fabulous on guitar and mandolin, finger-picking or slide, playing with a sweet intensity and prowess that comes from decades of heartfelt experience. Orville Johnson is today one of the singular most admirable figures on the acoustic blues scene. Ironically, despite his amazing skills, vast talent and musicologist repertoire, he is too often unmentioned among the leaders of the genre. Frankly, it is astonishing that so many blues directories unfairly ignore him.
If anybody embodies the spirt, intent and purpose of this web directory of the acoustic blues, it is to recognize the brilliant virtuosity and musicianship of folks like Orville Johnson, a man who had dedicated himself to the music which we herein celebrate. He has single handedly converted countless listeners to the merits of the simple acoustic blues, the emotive spirit of roots & blues and to the preservation of American folk music at its finest. Orville Johnson sings in a raspy blues tone and is an extraordinary lap steel and bottleneck slide guitarist and a superlative fingerpicker. You gotta love him…but first you gotta know him. The acoustic guitar and blues press has given him scarce but critical acclaim. Yet, he seems to fly under the radar of the international blues scene, perhaps because he has not been signed to a major or minor label. He is known mostly in the Northwest USA and nationally mostly as a teacher. So let us shout from the rooftops: “This is one amazing, wonderful player who ranks among the finest in the USA. We fervently celebrate him.”
He described his own style to TheCountryblues.com, “I am looking for my own truth.” The truth is hard to find. Countless philosophers have devoted a lifetime to it. His search began in as a child, growing up in Edwardsville, Illinois, a city near the Mississippi. He was raised in a Pentecostal Church, an American charismatic protestant evangelist church that has produced an unusually high number of musicians due to the heavy emphasis on music and showmanship within the church. There he learned to sing and use his first instrument, his voice. He learned to slur and accentuate the melodies of the spirituals sung by the congregation.
Later on he picked up the electric guitar and, like many baby boomer teens, he started playing Beatles and popular rock-n-roll. Around the age of seventeen he discovered finger-picking and slide guitar and he started listening and learning Robert Johnson and Doc Watson almost simultaneously, influences that come through in his music to this day. He switched to acoustic guitar and absorbed a multitude of influences from Josh Graves to Mississippi John Hurt and Flatt & Scruggs. Orville Johnson has established a diversified career as both performer, sideman, writer and, teacher. He has been associated with at least 25 movie soundtracks- noteworthy are “The Wooly Boys” with Peter Fonda and “Georgia “ with Jane Fonda.
He is also a walking encyclopedia of American roots music, a published musicologist. He is a fixture on the guitar workshop scene and a notable teacher. To hear him is to love him, admire him and respect him.
He has played with a virtual who is who in the genre. Among his recent collaborators is bassist Laura Love. Their newest CD is “The sweeter the juice,” one definitely worth checking out.