February , 2011
By Andy Laudano
Hard Work Pays Off
A JAM Magazine Exclusive Interview
Damon Johnson may not be a household name, but this multi-talented musician has nonetheless put together quite an impressive resume. Chances are high you've seen him perform on stage. Better yet, you've probably heard one of his tunes over the airwaves. Either way, you'd be surprised at the versatility this singer / songwriter / guitarist displayed throughout his 20-plus year career in the business.
After playing guitar in bands throughout college in his home state of Alabama, Johnson first came into the national spotlight as the front man for the band Brother Cane. "It's kind of funny," recalled Johnson of his early days. "In the beginning I just wanted to be a guitar player, and that's all I ever saw myself doing. Our band originally signed a development deal with Virgin Records. One night, our A&R guy saw me sing The Allman Brothers' "Melissa" in a Birmingham bar. Afterwards, he asked me to front the band. Then I began writing songs.
"I'm real proud of the work I did with Brother Cane. To this day, people still come up to me and want to talk about the band. I would love to do more with those guys one day, because that music, and that time, was so special to me. The six of us toured with many of our heroes back then like Aerosmith, Robert Plant, Van Halen and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
"Unfortunately, even though songs like "Got No Shame" got tons of airplay, it didn't translate into record sales. I think we were the band that was played the most on the radio, but sold the least amount of albums. The timing just wasn't right for Brother Cane. It's a shame, because I think songs like "And Fools Shine On," which had a much more contemporary sound, could have done so much more. I really feel like that was the one that got away."
Following the amicable breakup of Brother Cane, Johnson spent a lot of his time writing, or co-writing songs, that would be recorded by other artists including Sammy Hagar, Ted Nugent, Stevie Nicks and Skid Row. All that work, he says, helped build his confidence as a songwriter.
"I can't even describe," Johnson remarked, "how rewarding it is as an artist to have someone like Sammy or Ted, who have done it all in this industry, to ask me to sit down and co-write some songs with them. I'm especially proud of the song "Every Day" that Stevie Nicks recorded. I had originally written the tune for myself to include on a solo album. As fate would have it, Stevie was looking for an extra song for her album and heard the song."
In 2001, Johnson joined legendary rock vocalist John Waite (The Babys / Bad English) as a touring guitarist. He also started the alternative rock band, Slave to the System, with Queensryche drummer Scott Rockenfield and producer / guitarist Kelly Gray.
"Kelly and I go way back," Damon reveals. "He produced the third Brother Cane album, Wishpool, and we really connected. After Chris DeGarmo left Queensryche, Kelly was asked to join them. One day, he phones and wants me and my buddy Roman Glick (former Brother Cane bassist) to fly out and jam with him and Scott. We had so much fun, and worked so well together, that three weeks later we had an album ready to shop around."
Fate continued to intervene for Johnson. Another phone call from a friend landed him a session job playing acoustic and electric guitar, for country music sensation Faith Hill's huge hit single, "Cry." Legendary guitarist Carlos Santana recorded the Georgia native's tune, "Just Feel Better," with vocals by Aerosmith's Steven Tyler. Johnson's highest profile gig to date began when he joined the band of shock rock icon, Alice Cooper, in 2004. Once again, it was all about having the right connections to get in the door, and the talent to back it up once he was inside.
"It's funny," explains Johnson, "how that whole thing came about. "Before Brother Cane was ever a band, I was in a band called Chinatown with this guy named Eric Dover. He was the only guy in Birmingham, Alabama that really believed in me as a musician, and thought I had what it takes to be a star. Fast forward to 2004 and Eric, who had been playing for Alice Cooper, decides it's time to move on and he recommends me for the job.
"It was originally supposed to be a temporary replacement gig, but Alice and I got along so well, the two of us ended up co-writing and recording the Dirty Diamonds album. Suddenly I am on the road six months out of the year with a rock legend. Being in the Alice Cooper band, and getting to play that catalog of music in front of so many fans every night, was like having all your rock and roll dreams come true."
Johnson, however, had more roads he needed to travel. In 2007, he left the job security of Alice Cooper to form a country band called Whiskey Falls.
"A good friend of mine not related named Buck Johnson," said the guitarist, "called one day with an invitation to sit in with some guys he had met. The two of us met while touring with John Waite's band. Buck had also co-written the Santana song with me. He had already met these guys who called themselves Whiskey Falls, and convinced me to come out and jam with them.
"When the four of us got together, and worked on a harmony vocal, it was magic. Right away, we knew we had something special. It was a tough, tough decision to leave Alice, but I played the songs we had recorded for him, and Alice gave me his blessing. They thought we were going to be the next Eagles. Our debut got a lot of radio airplay, and I'm really proud of the song "Last Train Runnin'," but it wasn't long before the small label we signed with went under. The four of us thought we'd surely get picked up by another record company, but with the poor economy taking its toll on the music business, no one was interested in signing new bands. Lucky for me there, another opening in Alice Cooper came up and the guys welcomed me back."
While the Cooper band is on hiatus, Johnson is on the road supporting his second solo record, Release. His all-acoustic show will be on display Feb. 25, when he appears at Poor David's Pub in Dallas alongside Ron Taylor and Darrin DeLatte.
"As an artist," continued Johnson, "playing my catalog of songs in an acoustic setting is just as exciting to me, as it is to play in front of thousands with Alice Cooper. Every night with Alice, we play the same set because it's a theatrical production that has to go from point A to B and so on. For my solo gigs, however, I don't go by a nightly set list.
"No two shows I play are ever the same. I read what the crowd wants and go from there. Luckily, I have twenty years worth of material to draw from. It's obvious to everyone watching the show how much fun I'm having when I perform. After my performance is over, I like to hang out afterwards and sign autographs, answer questions and hear what the fans have to say."
"I know rock stars are supposed to be all dark and mysterious, but I love mingling with people. I love getting all the instant feedback. That type of interaction with fans was one of the things I enjoyed doing with Whiskey Falls. No matter what else I do in my career, I'll continue to do these acoustic shows."
Johnson says he's never lost sight of the fans that have supported him throughout his career.
"Every day," he said sincerely, "I'm thankful for the support I've received throughout my career. Whether you were a fan of Brother Cane, Slave to the System, Alice Cooper, Whiskey Falls or any of the other projects I've been fortunate enough to work on over the years, there aren't enough words to show my appreciation for the people that have stuck by me.
"I know some people out there are all gloom and doom about the state of the record industry. I just want to say that as long as you can write, as long as you can play, and as long as you love music and can entertain, you'll always find work in this business."
Damon Johnson will be appearing with Ron Taylor and Darrin DeLatte to perform an acoustic set at Poor David's Pub February 25, 2011. Buy your tickets today »