Merl Johnson reviews
I met Merl Johnson when he was a 19 year old kid. Quiet and unassuming, holding a banjo; he was a pleasant, affable kid who didn't seem to have much to say. Then he kicked off and sang the Stanley Brothers' "I Only Exist," and I knew we had a monster on our hands. Since that day, through the experiences Merl documented himself earlier, I have seen him grow into as versatile and exemplary a bluegrass musician as I know. The simple fact is, any band in the country in need of a professional-quality musician to fill any one of the five traditional bluegrass instruments could throw Merl on the bus and not skip a beat.
His new Patuxent Music release, Better Man, finds the spotlight shining
brightly on Merl's vocals, mandolin playing and fiddling. The album kicks
off with a bluegrass reading of the Clint Black hit "A Better Man."
Kicked by former Gent Dick Smith on banjo, It's not difficult to assume
you've stumbled upon a Country Gentleman gem that had somehow remained
buried on some Gents LP from the 70s until this rendition. The contemporary
D.C. roots continue to run deep with a take on Bob Perilla's "The
Briley Boys." Featuring the unbridled fiddling of local D.C. legend
Tad Marks and Jay Starling's haunting dobro, this true story about a late-70s
murder spree in Richmond, Virginia will make the hair on the back of your
neck stand up.
Room is also made for original material, as Merl presents a couple of original instrumentals, the jaunty and infectious "Amandalyn" will get toes tapping, while the homage "You'll Find Monroe Written There" (featuring a Danny Knicely guitar break that you will be rewinding) finds Merl paying respect to every mandolinists' rightful hero. Merl also pays homage to another hero, his father Bob Johnson, with the inclusion of two of his songs, "In Those Hills," a love-letter to the state of Virginia, and the sacred song "Power of Prayer."
Merl couldn't have assembled a better band to cover the material amassed
for this album. Hearing venerable Dick Smith play the banjo is a treat
for any fan of D.C. bluegrass, the rhythm section of Danny Knicely and
Stefan Custodi more than posses the versatility necessary to traverse
the divergent material presented herein, and Jay Starling providing wonderful
texture with his dobro-playing and tenor vocals. It all culminates in
one vibrant album, put together by one of the vibrant lights in bluegrass
music, Merl Johnson - Joseph Scott