Ralph Boyd Johnson - 1723 9 St SW
For those unaware of its significance, 1723 9 St SW may be the worst album title since 461 Ocean Boulevard. Ralph Boyd Johnson most obviously believed that this Calgary address had to be the title of his sophomore album.
You see, and as most anyone with a passing familiarity with the lore of the Alberta roots music scene will tell you, 1723 9 St SW was the home for a period of time of Billy Cowsill. Until his death in 2006, Cowsill was the (mostly) undisputed prince of the Calgary alt.country community, and his influence on RBJ and others has been apparent and lasting.
A decade ago- back when all things seemed possible and No Depression unified disparate singers and songwriters under a semi-cohesive banner- Ralph Boyd Johnson emerged with Dyin’ to Go, still one of the strongest roots music albums the province has witnessed. For a while Johnson worked the circuit, playing the festivals and the occasional club date, chasing a dream that seemed elusive.
His dream wasn’t Son Volt (or even Hayseed)-level success. Johnson always appeared to simply want the next gig to be better than the last, the next song to resonate with another listener. While I’m not familiar with details of his life since Dyin’ to Go received widespread praise, I’ve kept my ears and eyes open.
In the middle of the last decade, Johnson was a driving force behind Rivers and Rails, A Tribute to Alberta, a strong and diverse collection of original material celebrating the province’s centennial. I would occasionally see his name mentioned in the various free Calgary street papers, and once was very pleasantly surprised to catch him opening a show at the Ironwood. Still, considering the quality of Dyin’ to Go, and the promise it revealed, it was disappointing that few outside southern Alberta heard his name, let alone his music. RBJ was surpassed, at least commercially and familiarity wise, by a slew sowing similar ground- Corb Lund, Tim Hus, JR Shore, Leeroy Stagger, and others.
This past winter saw the release of 1723 9 St SW, and what an appearance it was.
[Insert long-winded and only semi-coherent, but almost relevant diatribe.] Some time ago, I was beginning to feel increasingly disenchanted with the abundance of pointless covers being released. I probably have more albums of cover songs than most people do, and obviously enjoy an inspired interpretation of both a standard and unfamiliar tune. I’m not sure when it happened, but it may have been around the time Doc Watson passed away. I’m not sure why.
I do know this. A few years ago, Steve Earle released his album Townes. In one of the interviews I read at that time, Earle- and bless him for his honesty- stated words to the effect that, as he was writing the novel I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive he knew he needed an album on the marketplace and decided to record the Townes Van Zandt album. (From a New York Times Anthony DeCurtis article, 2009: ”…The urge to complete that book, which he has intermittently been working on for eight years,led indirectly to the Townes project. ‘I’ve talked about doing it for a long time,’ [Earle] said about recording an album of Van Zandt’s material, ‘and since I didn’t have to write the songs, I thought I could make this record, turn it in and then finish the book.”) While that album is a pretty good- if unnecessary- one, it doesn’t touch the emotional impact of Earle’s own “Ft. Worth Blues,” written following Van Zandt’s death. The mercenary-like execution of the album tarnished it a bit for me, leading, in some large way, to my increasing dissatisfaction with ‘the tribute album.’ Too often, they appear to be the commercial stop-gap that Earle at least is bold enough to acknowledge.
Make no mistake, there have been some good tribute albums- the Guy Clark This One’s For Him, for example. Far more often, I’ve found ‘tributes’ to be less than satisfying. The recording that brought this to a head was Ricky Skaggs’ ‘tribute’ to Doc Watson. Now, Skaggs can cover any song he likes, and his version of “Tennessee Stud” is no better or worse than any other version I’ve encountered- they all pale next to Doc’s. So, when Skaggs released “Tennessee Stud” soon after Watson’s death, as well-meaning as it may have been, its inclusion on Music to My Ears left me cold and a little bothered. (Contrast that with a video of Elizabeth Cook covering “Columbus Stockade Blues” at Kansas City’s Knuckleheads, a bar I hope to visit this coming week to catch Amy LaVere, but I ramble, yet again.)
And, as others died and the requisite recordings emerged, I started thinking that a true and meaningful tribute needs to be something more than a ‘by the numbers’ cover of a favourite song.
A cover is a cover, and more often than not, I can find something appealing in covers of even my favourite songs; Hollie Cook’s interpretation of Rachel Sweet’s “It’s So Different Here” being a not so recent example. What I have tired of is the ‘tribute’ cover where someone or several someones pay ‘tribute’ to an artist by covering their music; I love Nick Lowe’s music, but Lowe Country mostly left me wanting. It wasn’t terribly interesting to hear others interpret Lowe’s music, simply because most of them couldn’t hold a candle to the original (not to mention, but I will, that I already own a couple different Lowe tribute albums.)
If an artist is going to ‘pay tribute’ to someone they admire, why don’t they take the time to actually write, to create, a true tribute to that artist? Ralph Boyd Johnson’s album (and you thought I had forgotten what I was supposed to be writing about today) is a perfect example of this. RBJ wanted to pay tribute to his friend and mentor Billy Cowsill. Rather than just covering a few of his songs- which he could easily have done- he took the time to craft something memorable, including the title track to his new album.
I’d love it if more artists went to the effort of pouring their admiration and appreciation for those who influenced them into an original creation, songs like Eric Burton’s “Guy Clark,” Jill Sobule’s “Whatever Happened to Bobbie Gentry,” The Steel Town Project’s “Leather and Bass (The Night Suzi Quatro Rocked Out ‘Can the Can’)” and Steve Forbert’s heartfelt ode to Rick Danko, “Wild As the Wind.”
Even songs that serve as indirect homage to artists, “John R and Me” (Radney Foster) or “Willie’s Guitar” from John Anderson, and “White Cadillac” by The Band, raise the ‘tribute’ bar. This is the reason Tom Russell’s “The Death of Jimmy Martin” resonates more than the many covers of his music (and some of them were great, including A Tribute to Jimmy Martin, The King of Bluegrass with Audie Blaylock, JD Crowe, Paul Williams, and Kenny Ingram) that were released following his passing.
Again, I love cover songs. To belabour my point, I’m just tired of them being labeled as ‘tributes.’ A tribute should be more, and I think a good place to start would be to create a song that captures the emotional and artistic impact the work of another has had on an individual. Take it to the next level, and then call it a ‘tribute’ as Old Man Luedecke does with “Song for Ian Tyson” and Mike Plume recently did with his ode “So Long Stompin’ Tom.”
Which is a long way around to stating, Ralph Boyd Johnson gets it right with his homage to Billy Cowsill.
Within the album, no fewer than four songs contain reference to Billy Cowsill. (And if you don’t know who Billy Cowsill was, Google him and purchase a Blue Shadows album. While you’re at it, consider Dustin Bentall’s “Ballad of Billy Cowsill.”)
Cowsill, who co-produced Dyin to Go and with whom Johnson wrote “The Fool Is the Last One to Know” from The Blue Shadows’ On The Floor of Heaven, was flawed: his troubles got the best of him. The genuine affection and honest regard Johnson held for him is apparent in every note and clever phrase contained within the fictional narrative “The Legend of Wild Billy C” and the reflective, more realistic “1723 9th St SW.” “Bill’s Pills,” despite its plea of “O, darlin’ don’t cry,” is simply sad.
Elsewhere, the themes are universal. “Holes in His Shoes” captures the intensity of a challenging friendship. Johnson displays his ability to drop gems worthy of Guy Clark singing, “I’ve got a friend threadbare button loose, through the eye of a needle found a hole in the noose…makes Keith Richards look like he just joined the band…” “Free of the flesh, and scared of our deeds, at the foot of the throne, we shall all be received,” Johnson sings in a song written with Cowsill (“Foot of the Throne”), in which they also manage to recognize TVZ.
The snappy “Cleaning House” has all the elements one looks for in a classic country-blues: an action-oriented woman and a no account fella; the clarinet fill is unexpected. While the Cowsill-oriented tracks are each meaningful, heartfelt and more than memorable, Johnson is at his best on “Adios Santa Rosa,” another song co-written with Cowsill, as well as ubiquitous Tim Leacock (whose The Wandering V’s I need to explore.) I never thought I would type ‘calypso’ in a RBJ review, but the lively “Blue Bird” fits that bill. Continuing the ‘feather’ theme, Johnson revisits “Ol’ Black Crow,” reworking and likely improving upon the spoken word, rap-influenced tale from his debut.
In an unexplained twist, a live rendition of Cowsill presenting his classic “Vagabond”- the first song of his I recall hearing, back in ’84 as he opened for John Anderson at the Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton- is appended to the disc. Culled from The Co-Dependents’ initial album, the track seems a fitting way to conclude an album over which his (blue) shadow is so prevalent: with Cowsill himself.
Ralph Boyd Johnson is his own man. Yes, he was fortunate to be ‘schooled’ by Billy Cowsill, but the path he has followed has always been his own.1723 9 St SW is an album of which I am certain Cowsill would approve, and of which Johnson can be proud.
If you read all of that…I apologize. I worked on this piece for a long time, and I don’t know if I near got it right. I do know it is long, and I’m plumb certain it isn’t perfect. But, it’s done and I mean it all.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald
Ralph Boyd Johnson
If Calgary's roots scene ever had a sacred house, a good argument could be made for the three-storey, red-brick abode on 9th Street in the city's southwest. A decade ago, it was the living space of Calgary-based singer/songwriter Ralph Boyd Johnson and numerous other musicians, including Johnson's mentor and friend, the legendary Billy Cowsill."It's a point of musical history in Calgary," explains Johnson, sipping a beer at one of his favourite musical haunts, Mikey's Juke Joint. "Billy Cowsill lived and died in the house. He died in the back of the house."
So it's not surprising that Cowsill, onetime 1960s teen heartthrob of the family band that The Partridge Family was modelled after, haunts much of 1723 9 Street SW, Johnson's stunning sophomore disc that pays tribute to his years spent at the house. Two of the songs-The Legend of Wild Billy C and Bill's Pills-are about Cowsill directly. It also includes the singer/songwriter's final two co-writes-Adios Santa Rosa and Foot of the Throne - and a version of Cowsill's own Vagabond. The album is dedicated to him with a reverent "Thanks Billy for the Music, the Schoolin' and the HEART" quote on the back cover.
Cowsill died in 2006 at the age of 58, firmly established as one of Western Canada's most iconic roots musicians through stints with The Blue Shadows and The Co-Dependents. But in his final years he was at the centre of a makeshift musical community made up of characters with great names like Back Alley John, Mickey Joy and James H. that would hang out, drink and occasionally scrap at 1723 9th Street. "This particular record is about what was happening in that era," Johnson says. "I was just very fortunate to be there and to be able to get some co-writes with Billy. It was just a magical time."
Backed by the Inner City Outlaws, 1723 9 Street SW acts as a 10-song revue of rootsrock styles and showcases Johnson's command of songcraft. From the Tex-Mex kick of Adios Santa Rosa to the joyful reggae lilt of Blue Bird to the Tom Waits-inspired, spoken-word jolt of Ol' Black Crow, the album certainly has an air of celebration to it. But the songs were actually completed six years ago. They were shelved at least partially due to Johnson's sadness over the death of his friend. "At first when Bill passed away, I just kind of clammed up a bit," he said. "People would come up to you and ask, 'How are you?' because we were all close. You'd have to reassure them you were OK and then ask, 'Well, how are you?'. I wasn't into that. It took too much energy. I didn't play music for a few years. Then time just slipped away." But Johnson thinks the time is right to let the music loose to the world and is planning a series of CD release parties with the Inner City Outlaws. It's his first album since 2002's Dyin' to Go, which was produced by Cowsill. Johnson sees the legacy of that period in Calgary's roots scene, from 2002 to 2006, as long overdue for some celebration. Meanwhile, the house itself narrowly escaped destruction a few years back. It's been lovingly refurbished and is now as sturdy as the musical legacy it spawned. "These songs are about a time and a place and a kind of synergy," Johnson says. "I loved it. If I could re-loop I'd live in that loop for the rest of my life."
- By Eric Volmer
Ralph Boyd Johnson is a well-weathered Calgary-based balladeer who makes his record debut with Dyin’ To Go, an album of his original songs, most of which are in the story-telling vein. He delivers the material with a Steve Earle / Fred Eaglesmith / Russell deCarle flair and throws in a couple of surprises along the way.
Several tunes stand out. She Used To Worry is a throwback of sorts to the rockabilly raunch of Elvis Presley and this one deserves to be given airtime on country radio. Mystery is a driving country/rock tune reminiscent of the hit songs popularized by Canada’s Charlie Major; and Hard Act To Follow) Back Alley John is a powerful country/blues tune.
Ralph Boyd Johnson’s story-telling prowess is probably best captured in Ol’ Black Crow – the story of an aging black pugilist (Jack Johnson perhaps?). RBJ performs the song in spoken word form, and it is mesmerizing to say the least, and a prime example of his overall entertainment value.
The album is co-produced by Tim Williams and Billy Cowsill, two veterans of the Western Canada music scene, both having achieved substantial success with various previous projects; Cowsill more recently as a member of the now defunct Blue Shadows. Their off-beat touches are well defined here and play a key part in the overall success of the album. The sessions were cut at Calgary’s Rocky Mountain and Night Deposit studios.
Country Music News, Larry Delaney, September 2002
Winnipeg Free Press
September 28, 2002
Take the grittiness
of Steve Earle, the working class attitude of Bruce Springsteen, the
heartland spirit of John Mellencamp, the western feel of Joe Ely, the
humour of Fred Eaglesmith and the storytelling of John Prine and you’ve
got Calgary based Ralph Boyd Johnson!
Johnson has done a lot of livin’…spending time in jail and in
rehab and draws on his own real life experiences and acquaintances to
write this postcard from the edge and displays a rare poetic conviction
and sense of humour doing it. One
moment he’ll have you lookin’ for a Kleenex and the next he’s kickin’
your ass but you’ll be movin’ your feet and singing along the whole
time. Dyin to Go is the
perfect soundtrack for that next Friday night pickup ride down an old dirt
May 13, 2002
We finally have his
debut album, “Dyin to Go” and I have to ask myself, “What took so
Ralph has opened or
played on stage with the likes of Joe Ely, Dave Alvin, Billy Cowsill,
Victoria Williams, Kevin Welch and Blue Rodeo.
A lot of pressmen have compared his music to that of Bruce
Springsteen, Steve Earle, John Prine, Tom Waits, etc.
Screw all that. He
definitely has his own thing going on, and if I were to identify him with
anyone, it would have to be perhaps, Fred Eaglesmith.
“Hey Boyd” I
asked him, “Did you listen to any traditional country music when you
were , like in high school?” “Fuck no, “ he replied, “I hated that
shit, I was into The Stones, Black Sabbath’s first album…”
Later in life as
Ralph grew older and became turned on to the Texas songwriters and suck,
his music took on a new edge and influence.
I asked him if he knew about the new Flatlander’s album coming
out and he said he was staring at the cover of Joe Ely’s Greatest Hits
album as we spoke. (The Flatlanders consist of Texas musicians Joe Ely,
Jimmy Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock).
Ralph is a true
songwriter in the best sense of the word.
He told me it usually takes him up to three weeks sometime to
finish just one son. An
exception is the song “Ode to Steve” on “Dyin to Go” aobut his
cousin’s husband who had a big influence on his life and helped raise
him, who died of cancer. Ralph
says he wrote the song in about three hours.
standing over your shoulder when you wrote that one?” I asked.
Ralph replied, “I swear to god, he really was.”
I guess Ralph Boyd
Johnson is a singer-songwriter and balladeer who does folk, roots rock,
country and even spoken word, sometimes separate, sometimes in
combination, depending on the song and how the mood fits.
A couple of the
songs on the album just kick ever-lovin ass and rock out.
The songs “Dyin to Go” and “ Hit the Deck” just demand to
be cranked way up. I was
playing “Dyin to Go” in my truck and had stopped to grab a paper in
front of a grocery store, and several people sitting outside at a
restaurant nearby were so impressed that they asked me about the artist.
Recorded over a
period of 14 months, the new album contains other gems like the
heartbreaking “Bombed Out House” and “She Used to Worry”; an
Elvis-like rave-up that really brings to mind the 50’s with its ear an
rib-tickling background vocals. “Hard
Act to Follow” is another about a desperate character who leads a
desperate, hard partying life. One
of my faves is “What Do Ya Right” about an outlaw who is out hitchin’
trains, has a lot of bad habits and is involved in some serious criminal
activity. In the song he asks
“What do ya write on the back of postcards from the edge?”
Crow” is a pugilistic spoken word piece about a black bare-knuckle
fighter who pounds it out to the death.
This is one hell of a piece of poetry and goes to demonstrate the
depths of Johnson’s obvious talent.
God, pisses me off
when someone with this much talent, who has been working so long to share
his gifts with the rest of the world, gets passed over and lost in the
cracks. I really hope that
this doesn’t happen because this guy needs to be noticed quick, and in a
Magazine March 2002
Ralph Boyd Johnson
has been a fixture in the local Calgary music scene for years.
He’s been talking about doing an album as long as I can remember.
Well he finally pulled together the plan and here it is.
Dyin to Go is a
rootsy, ballsy, confident debut. Comparisons
to Steve Earle and John Hiatt are bound to come up in Johnson’s vocal
style but he is his own man. He
rocks, he moans with passion and conviction, and he writes about those alt
country standbys-losers in life and love with an eerie sense of
experience. From the opening
drumbeats of Mystery Johnson takes us on a roots rock tour of his world.
He also has the guts to include two terrific spoken word pieces-Ol’
Black Crow” and “Ode to Steve”.
It could have been maudlin’ but they both take what is a really
good album that one step higher.
Johnson has also
assembled a great band, including such Calgary stalwarts as Billy Cowsill,
Ross Watson, and Tim Leacock from The Co-Dependents, Thom Moon (ex of Ian
Tyson), Tim Williams, the blues man, and everybody’s favourite keyboard
player Ron Casat. They
provide the required energy and roots rock sound to showcase the songs
Ralph has come up with.
“Dyin to Go”:
it’s terrific. As good a
debut album as I have heard in a long time.
Roots music welcomes a brand new voice.
Look out for Ralph Boyd Johnson.
The debut recording
from one of Calgary’s most popular country rockers, Dyin to Go belongs
in eh collection of every local alt-country fan.
From the spoken word track Ol’Black Crow to the heartbreaking
Bombed Out House, Dyin to Go manages to be both personal and universal at
the same time. Johnson’s
compelling whiskey rasp and stellar songwriting are a one-two punch that
shows exactly why he’s been compared to Steve Earle and Bruce
Springsteen. Oh yeah, the
album also features some of the best-known names in Calgary’s alt
country and folk music biz-guys such as Tim Leacock, Ron Casat, Billy
Cowsil. ‘Nuff said. It’s good.
All Music Guide
Expert Review May 2002
Dedicated to those
who lost their lives in wars past protecting freedoms, Ralph Boyd Johnson
seems just as comfortable walking a tight rope.
The tight rope consists of going between the Stetson-polished
country boogie of Garth Brooks and the roots rock long performed by John
Cougar Mellencamp and Steve Earle, tending to be more at home in the
latter. “Bombed Out
House” and “Common Clay” are more than enough evidence that the
singer knows how to carry a song and a melody from start to finish.
Johnson also can mix old-time rock and roll within the modern
country and western three-minute framework, such as he does quite easily
on the title track. The
record is also quite fearless, which results in
some unexpected surprises, the horns on “Hit the Deck” being
one example. Ballads aren’t
invisible also, as “Hard Act to Follow (B.A. John)” consists of a
laid-back alt-country tempo and some backing harmonies.
A lengthly finale on “Ode to Steve” slows things to a crawl,
but an enjoyable crawl at that despite the morbid tale.
By far the stellar track has to be the Springsteen-styled “What
do Ya Right?” as roots rock comes to the fore.
Red Deer Advocate
As did Hank
Williams, Johnson witnesses the drudgery and darkness of his environment
but never allows the magic and light of his human existence to be lost
amid betrayal and abandonment.
vigorously personal songs that rip the listener’s heart out through
their throat. He counters
these with reflective, emotional songs that can make one grieve with heart
Johnson who wrote
for the Blue Shadows’ The Fool is The Last One To Know, recently
released his debut recording and it is a superior effort.
The songwriting is expressive with an informal, back-porch quality
about it while encompassing hs Earle and Eaglesmith influences.
Mystery and Bombed Out House have commercial potential while What
do Ya Right? And Common Clay have more literary breadth.
The most reflective song is a softly sung epic entitled Ode to
Steve and is related in the voice of Johnson’s brother.
When I first heard
RBJ five years ago, I knew he had The Gift.
Dyin to Go confirms his inherent mastery of songwriting and
CBC radio Saturday
Night Blues September 2002