Johnny Dowd’s Musical Journey
Johnny Dowd found the title for his new album, Execute American Folklore, by accident. He ran Google Translate on what turned out to be a negative review in Dutch and found himself accused of “executing American folklore.” He was delighted.
“Finally someone has given me the phrase for what I’ve been doing for 25 years,” he said as he rolled a cigarette between sips of coffee on the steps of the former Felicia’s Atomic Lounge. “Well, OK, I’ve been doing it a little longer than that.”
Dowd famously came late to the life of a professional musician. He describes having an epiphany at age 35. The Army veteran was still living as if he was still 19 while watching his friends get married and buy houses. “I knew I didn’t want to do that,” he said, “but I was washing dishes for a living, and I knew I didn’t want to do that. And I thought, ‘Music; I’ve always loved music since I was 9 years old.’ I didn’t see anything about it that I couldn’t do. I knew musicians; they weren’t that smart. So I started the same way other people start when they’re 15, but way late. I’m only 30 in musical years.”
Although he claims to have no natural musical ability, in his mid-30s Dowd learned to play guitar and then he began writing songs. By many people’s estimate: awesome songs. His band Neon Baptist was one of the three bands to appear at the State Theatre in 1991 in a fundraiser that would inaugurate the Grassroots Festival. This past year Dowd released a double live CD of archival Neon Baptist shows.
His first solo album, The Wrong Side of Memphis, was released in 1998. “I got in at the top of the alt-country thing,” Dowd said. “Europe was paying crazy money; the big rock clubs were subsidized by the government back then. But now it’s just like the States.” Dowd doesn’t think his career would get off the ground if he were trying to start it now.
“[In the ‘90s] low-fi was big,” he said, “and my first record was unintentionally low-fi. I had it on cassette and played it for my friends. They said it was great, so I just put it in the mail, sent it out to the music magazines, and got all kinds of hits.” The copy he mailed to Billboard resulted in a positive review.
“I was super-lucky,” said Dowd. “There was like a two-month window. We went to South by Southwest and signed two record deals. It’s just been a slow decline from there. It’s what I’ve got on some other artists around here: it’s easier to go down.”
In terms of remuneration, you can’t argue with the man, but in terms of the music, fans of Dowd will undoubtedly disagree with his assessment. He has put out an average of about an album per year, and they have been restlessly exploratory. In addition to new collections of original music, he has turned out compilations, tributes, and live albums. And they are no longer low-fi.
Where once he sat down with an acoustic guitar, he now programs a drum machine and then adds all the rest. “Then I find some lyrics that I’ve already written or write some new ones,” he said. “It has become more of a hip-hop thing: words over beats. I find a beat that I like and a bass line, and then just build it out. I may try 10 or 15 permutations of a line before I get it right.”
Dowd has departed from his album per year average this year. In addition to Execute American Folklore, which was funded with an IndiGoGo campaign, and the Neon Baptist live release, he has recorded “a 30-minute instrumental, Bitches Brew type of thing. A friend in California is mixing it now. It should be ready by Christmas.”
Released first in Europe and available at johnnydowd.com, Execute American Folklore came out on Mother Jinx Records on Sept. 9 in the U.S. There will be a record-release party at the Rongovian Embassy on Saturday, Oct. 1. at 9 p.m. Jennie Stearns and Park Doing will open the show. •