He’s been called “The Sinatra Of Country Harp,” (among other accolades), but only in terms of musicianship and overall feel, not any sort of massive egotism. Jelly Roll Johnson isn’t one to let excessive admiration balloon up his ego. For one thing, not many musicians are willing to give the time of day to media jackals like myself, much less offer to teach them anything. But that’s what happens when you deal with someone this grounded.
Although well known as the Nashville harp man, Jelly actually draws his hospitality from a. well much closer to here–Lake Charles, LA, to be exact. “I was born and raised there,” he says. “I had two aunts who lived in New Orleans, so we used to go there quite a bit, I got an aunt out in Laplace. She’s a Ledoux,” Cajun blood, perhaps? “I’m Cajun on my mom’s side,” he laughs. Does he ever feel this side of the South calling him back? “Oh, all the time. I was supposed to move back there a few years ago, but that fell through.”
Always musically inclined, and from a musically inclined family (Dad was the harp man back then), young Jelly Roll, then known to all as Kirk, began playing clarinet in the Lake Charles High School band. His father would shape little Kirk’s destiny in two ways, first by his choice of instrument and then by a work transfer to east Tennessee.
Kirk was 17, uprooted, and in new surroundings, so he took to the one thing he loved best: music. “I started playing in Chattanooga,” Johnson recalls. “Actually, I got a flute first ’cause the fingering was the same as the clarinet. But my dad has always played harmonica, as a hobby. So he sort of gave me the idea. It came pretty easily.”
Of course, Kirk was far from being an expert, and the local radio wasn’t much help. “When I started, I only heard harmonica on things like Rolling’ Stones records,” he says in a soft gentle accent that sounds pieced together from a dozen regional dialects: “Then a friend of mine gave me a Little Walter album. Then, not too long after that, I heard Paul Butterfield.” Another big influence was Charlie McCoy, whom Jelly Roll cites as a major country influence (and, if the reviews are to be believed, he may even be McCoy’s logical musical descendant). Session man to the core, though, he takes pains not to be tied down to anyone scene: “I feel like I’ve been influenced by everybody I’ve heard. But as far as trying to learn the language of the harmonica, people whose style I’ve actually studied, those were the main ones.
The next logical step from Chattanooga was Music City, USA, where Johnson moved in 1984.
There he quickly became one of Nashville’s top hired guns, building a resume that stretches from Bobby Vinton to Etta James to Jeff Foxworthy (!). He went on to appear on over 50 gold and platinum albums, as well as appearing at any number of gigs, the most high-profIle of which was his live performance with Trisha Yearwood on the 1996 Counrty Music Association Awards Show. The town’s not taking him for granted, either: he was awarded the 1998 Nashville Music Award for Best Wind Instrumentalist.
Johnson describes his career this way, “Most of the stuff I’ve done is country and folk … Tom Paxton, Guy Clark, George Jones, and some Christian artists, like Anointed.” Was that related to any personal beliefs? “No … I’m a session player. I record with whoever calls me to record. Most of the Christian labels happen to be based here in Nashville. Everyone records here; there’s over 200 recording studios.” Maybe so, but it’s still regarded as a songwriter’s town, and so when Jelly Roll set out to make his debut CD, he knew what he had to focus on. “The idea of the CD was just to showcase my playing, obviously, but I needed the songs to do it.” Fortunately, most of Jelly’s friends represent the cream of Nashville. There’s Tony Arata (Garth Brooks’ “The Dance”); Fred Knobloch (George Strait’s “Meanwhile”); Verlon Thompson (Trisha Yearwood’s “You Say You Will”), and more. Johnson takes pains to point out that the title of the CD isn’t artificially cozy. “These are guys that are all friends of mine; they live in Nashville, and usually I’ll play once a month with at least one of them.”
With that lineup, the mouth harp man had a simple plan: Pick some good songs, keep the recording simple, and the production clean, and let the music speak for itself. “They were all very gracious,” Johnson says of his partners. “We just had fun. It was basically live in the studio–those are all, like, first and second takes. They already knew the songs, you know?” he laughs. “I was also pickin’ songs ,that would work together, that wouldn’t necessarily be covered by major artists. A lot of their songs fall by the wayside, because they write so much. I guess what I was trying to do was show the depth of their range of talent as far as songwriters.”
The album was also self-produced, a decision that often raises eyebrows but which came perfectly natural to Jelly. “I’d done a little bit of production before, no major label stuff. I knew what I wanted to do. I basically had these singer-songwriters playing these songs, just like we do it live, in an acoustic setting .. We had a real good engineer who knew how to capture acoustic music.”
Johnson’s typical modesty notwithstanding, the simple virtues of the CD-and, lest we forget, Jelly’s storied harp skills-have not been lost on the press. Nashville’s trade bible, Music Row magazine, says that (‘Johnson’s ‘voice’ is pure emotion; his timing and tone are laughably perfect.” Very true. The whole work reveals Jelly as the artists’ artist; he can take a song like “A Lover Is Forever,” a torch already lit by Etta James, and open up whole new worlds of emotion with just a few graceful moves from his Marine Band. That’s right—even his instrument is simple and unassuming. “I fooled around with the Blues Harp,” he says Jelly’s strictly a Hohner man). “It wasn’t what I was looking for, although the comb in it is wood. Marine Band is made that way. I hear something a little different in the wood comb harps, whereas the Special 20 and the Golden Melody [also Hohners] are plastic comb.”
Many folks’ first harp is a Marine Band, and I could never get the hang of it personally, because my mouth was too small. Even though the book said to tongue-block the notes, I’d just put my whole mouth over each one. It was my secret shame. That is, until I told Jelly. “Hey, that’s actually more common than tongue-blocking. It’s more common to play that way. But then, I tongue-bock single notes too.” You DO? “Yeah. If you like, sometime, I can give you a few lessons,” he said, bowling me over for a bit. People like Jelly can make anyone’s job a little easier, it seems. Wanna bet he’s got more than a few close friends?