Johnny Dowd is an American alternative country musician from Ithaca, New York. Typical of his style are experimental, noisy breaks in his songs and strong gothic (in the sense of dark and gloomy) elements in the lyrics as well as in the music. There is also a strong undercurrent of black humour and the absurd in his work.
Although his early albums were most celebrated in the alternative country community, he has never quite fit into any particular genre. As a singer-songwriter, his music is most often compared to that of Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Captain Beefheart.
Johnny’s new album, “Family Picnic” will be released March 1, 2019. As Dowd says himself: “I had to dig pretty deep for this one. Not sure how many more tunes I have in me. Tick tock. This record took an unexpected turn to the past — my past. It’s kind of like Wrong Side of Memphis 30 years down the road. Surprisingly little has changed for me (emotionally, that is). I’m still drawn to the same themes — unrequited love, murder, general foolishness. Waltzes and shuffles and boom chuck beats abound. Ice cream chord changes. Plus Kim Sherwood -Caso – and Mike Edmondson. What’s not to like? An Americana classic, if I do say so myself.”
Dowd has made a career of making music full of piercingly bleak, hard fought, gnarled dreamscapes that make David Lynch’s tales seem like those of a choir boy. But just when I thought I had him figured out, Dowd delivers a blues record so beautiful that I cannot stop playing it. It is also full of demons that live on a merry-go-round with feedback and distortion taking the places of the painted ponies going up and down. Paradoxically, its’s his most accessible music in quite a while, maybe ever.
“I am guilty as sin, of what I do not know” are about the first words out of Dowd’s mouth on the album, but it’s not so much about some spurious redemption as is it an observation about the quandary we currently find ourselves in. Then, digging even deeper, he pretty well sums up the Civil War in the next track, “Vicksburg.” Lyrically, Dowd seems to have inherited Leonard Cohen’s mantle, with Kim Sherwood-Caso acting as his Julie Christensen. Nowhere is more evident than on “Dream On,” where her counterpoint is so evocative. Sit back, relax, enjoy the ride.
There’s never been a more apt description of Johnny Dowd’s mission statement than the title of his 2016 album, Execute American Folklore. Ever since his glorious wrong turn on Wrong Side Of Memphis, he’s been taking a chainsaw to the stuff. Last year’s brilliantly iconoclastic, Twinkle, Twinkle was no exception. His latest, Family Picnic is a homecoming of sorts. To Wrong Sideterritory. But if this is the sound of Dowd looking back, you’re in for quite a carnival ride.
The self-described, ominous instrumental ‘Hoodoo’ ushers you in, then we’re face to face with ‘The Man Of Your Dreams’. And ladies, he’s anything but. Then we’re given a guided tour of ‘Vicksburg’. One listen and it’s clear Dowd’s not only singing about the Civil War but the state of the union over the past 160 years or so. “It was war politicians and war profiteers, it was young men dying while the old men cheered,” Dowd drawls. What’s more, I can’t think of a more apt summation of today’s polarized political battlefield.
‘Shameless’ tackles aging with lethal doses of black humor. Some lines literally had me falling out of my seat. And that goes for much on this long player. Dowd’s wit may be dark and dustbowl dry, but there’s always a punchline right in the eye when you’re not looking.
‘Walking The Floor’ tackles obsession, revealing it’s little more than a self-imposed prison sentence. One’s cellmate, the funhouse mirrors of delusional thinking. Here Dowd rips the Stetson off Country Music cliché, revealing the nightmare underneath and never quite disclosing where the bones are hidden.
On ‘Stuttering Wind’ Dowd summons elegiac images of the dearly departed, crows and snow. Kim Caso Sherwood singing the haunting refrain, “All fear the stuttering wind.” “Miserable man knows the meaning of remorse, he wears it on the saddle of his bug-eyed horse”, Dowd grouses. Hard to say what this song is about other than mortality flying its freak flag in the face of everything.
‘Family Picnic’ introduces you to the clan, skewering family values in the process. “Little sister makes a salad and big sister waits for a call, Brother John’s in the bathroom, lord he’s climbing the walls”. The chorus asking the immortal question, “How much emptiness can you swallow? Would a six-pack get you through?” With its demented guitar and cast of legless, diabetic relatives, Tom Waits’ ‘Cemetery Polka’ can’t help but come to mind. If there’s any moral, “such is the cruelty of life”.
The gorgeous, ‘Dream On’ paints a humbling picture of remorse. “You called me a dreamer, but I’m all dreamed out. I’m just a whisper, I don’t know what I was shouting about.” Then chanteuse Kim Sherwood kicks in to duet with “bitch eyed baby, bitch eyed girl, all around my world.” It’s the closest we’re going to get to a love song.
‘Four Grey Walls’ tips its hat to the Jim Reeves classic. Dowd painting said walls blacker than an undertaker’s coat with bon mots like, “Sackcloth and ashes is what you should wear, the dream of love has become a nightmare”. As bleak as all this sounds, it’s Dowd’s sense of humor that keeps things from tipping into despair. If anything, Dowd stares despair straight in the face and then cracks a smile at it. As if to say, if you can’t laugh at this crazy ass shit, you’re going to just lose your marbles.
‘Conway Twitty’ is a demented tale of ambition in our shallow fame hound culture. Dowd’s guitar sounding like a warped trumpet doing a raspberry. And if its murder ballads you’re after, look no further than the black comedy of, ‘Little Jimmy’. “He was not evil, he was just a fuck up. Officially, I knew he had run out of luck.” Which may be putting it mildly. In any event, Jimmy’s wife slits his throat because she’s sick of taking his bullshit. Dowd musing, “Was he the master of himself or the slave”?
Without a doubt, ‘Back End of Spring’ is the most unclassifiable track on the album. Whatever it is, it’s haunting as hell. And what’s more, it rocks. Family Picnic ends with a countryfied tip of the hat to gospel legend, Thomas Dorsey. Dowd lamenting that in comparison to Dorsey, “I sing songs of lust and depravity, that’s the only kinda songs come out of me.” As his warped guitar fades out, you hear Dowd and Sherwood duet, “I wish that Satan would let me go.” If this is the devil’s music, I’ll take it over Amy Grant or Stryper any day of the week. Here’s to ol’ Scratch hanging onto Johnny’s coattails for as long as he can.
JOHNNY DOWD BRINGS “FAMILY PICNIC” to Running Horse.
Ticket : £12 (Door £15)
Thirty years on from his remarkable, indescribably dark and damn right startling Americana debut Wrong Side Of Memphis, legend Johnny Dowd returns to the roots rock arena with Family Picnic, his new album
Over the last thirty years, Dowd has been releasing records that defy trends, a unique catalogue of work that stands head and shoulders above many of his lauded contemporaries. Now in his seventieth year on God’s good earth, Dowd has lost none of the vigour, enthusiasm, and attitude that has seen him forge his position as one of America’s most inquisitive musical minds, a musical explorer who has charted expeditions to genre-defying destinations that, at their heart, question, challenge, and dissect in their own way notions of the American Dream.
Family Picnic is the first time Dowd has really looked backwards in all that time, instead of plunging forward into a sonic unknown with the playfulness of a child.
As Dowd says himself: “I had to dig pretty deep for this one.
Not sure how many more tunes I have in me. Tick Tock!
This record took an unexpected turn to the past – my past. It’s kind of like Wrong Side of Memphis 30 years down the road. Surprisingly little has changed for me (emotionally, that is). I’m still drawn to the same themes — unrequited love, murder, general foolishness. Waltzes and shuffles and boom chuck beats abound. Ice cream chord changes. What’s not to like? An Americana classic, if I do say so myself.”
Ithaca NY’s Johnny Dowd has been patrolling the dark, uneasy, unclassified byways and B-roads of the American heartlands for over two decades. A blistering, uncompromising guitar slinger and songwriter, Dowd is set to release his new album ‘Family Picnic’ this month, an ‘americana’ gem that returns to the topics and themes that inspired his legendary debut, ‘Wrong Side Of Memphis‘ and once again underlines Dowd as one of America’s true musical explorers. Americana-UK catches up with him as he prepares to embark on another European tour and asks him about the music that accompanies any such road trip.
So Johnny, how’s life on the road for you and what’s in that glovebox?
There comes a time on every tour when the next drive is too far, your emotional tank is nearly empty, and you can think of nothing but your mortality. At that point, you pull out ZZ Top’s ‘Greatest Hits,’ and you are again ready to conquer the world.
After a gig I want to hear something as far away from the music I played as possible. Sun Ra fits the bill. Any Sun Ra album. It doesn’t matter. He is the tallest giant in a universe of giants.
Today is an easy drive. You feel like you are not a day over 60. In other words, all is groovy. It’s time for Grant Green’s ‘Ain’t it Funky Now.’ Funky and sophisticated.
One of the first albums I bought was James Brown, Live at the Apollo. The very first album I bought was by Percy Faith. I don’t know what that was about. I do love a string section. So many great James Brown albums, but I guess James Brown Live at Paris Olympia 1971 has got to be high on the list. Speaking of high, I don’t know what the band was on, but some of those tempos are ridiculous.
This is another album that’s good after a greasy English breakfast. Incredible playing, uber funky, socially interesting. Of course I’m talking about ‘Headhunters,’ Herbie Hancock. Anything you can do, he can do better.
It’s that boring time after sound check and dinner. You really have nothing left to say to your band mates, let alone strangers. I might go to the van for some alone time and listen to Mary Wells, ‘All the Best.’ This album is like a time machine for me. I can usually only listen to a couple of songs before I start getting too emotional. Then it’s time for a brewski.
Any time is a perfect time to play this record. You could listen to it before your greasy English breakfast, just to get your mind and belly in alignment. ‘Paid in Full,’ Eric B. and Rakim. (Have I mentioned Betty Davis, the woman who put the funk in Miles?) ( Yes, MANY times…. ed.)
Late night. Trying to find the hotel. Lost. Twenty minute drive turns into an hour-and-a-half. No problem. ‘The Very Best of ‘ Johnny Guitar Watson (Rhino Records) will keep you focussed, relaxed, and alert. I just love his guitar playing.
You have a day off. You would prefer to stay in your motel room and watch tv. But your band mates want to drive somewhere to see ancient ruins. What can you do? Dial up some Sonny Sharrock, ‘Ask the Ages.’ This album affects me the way The Dark Side of the Moon affects hippies.
Sometimes, hopefully only once per tour, you are lying in bed in your motel room, it’s 3 AM, and sleep is impossible. You are engulfed in an ocean of loneliness and regret, and there is only one album that really captures that feeling: ‘Only the Lonely,’ Frank Sinatra. But if it’s the last day of the tour, and you are headed to the airport, then the only album to play is his ‘Songs for Swinging Lovers.’ Boundless swinging optimism. So that is touring. Hours of great music in the van. Followed by a gig, motel, breakfast. Repeat.
A Man Out Of Step Takes a Massive Leap Into The Alt. Past.
Johnny Dowd? It’s not fair to say that you either ‘love him’ or ‘hate him’ as it’s more, ‘you get him’ or ‘you don’t’. Mrs. Magpie gave me ‘that look’ last Saturday night when I played this on the stereo; which puts her in the latter camp; me…… bring it on kidda!
Dowd is now 70 and been recording albums for just 30 of those years; but those albums have helped change what we now call Americana Music for the better; as he has probably been an influence with anyone who put’s an Alt. in front of Country or possibly even Blues.
I will try to use the word ‘weird’ once; and keep the comparisons to a bare minimum; but right from the get go; opening track, the weirdly Jazzy/Blues instrumental Hoodoo sounds like something Zappa or Beefheart dreamt of creating put sadly failed, leaving it for Johnny Dowd set the new benchmark for Avant Garde Rock Music.
Over the years I’ve received quite a few albums by artistes trying to make music this interesting and fascinating; but all save a couple of songs have failed miserably; yet even on this Dowd’s 18th album it’s chock-a-block full of songs that will spin your head; but bring you straight back for more, more, more.
There’s so much more to Vicksburg than just being a history lesson; it could be poetry set to an Acid Jazz beat; or is that Alt. Country with a beat box? Who knows? Who cares?
Dowd uses Bass-lines so dynamic on the sparkling title track Family Picnic and Back End of Spring they will more than likely to get pinched by with-it Hippity-Hoppity stars; yet on the latter Dowd might even be getting his own Hip-Hop on anyways!
While there are surprises around every corner; I was stunned to hear Dowd Go Dub on Let’s Have a Party; or at least the backing track has come straight out of Orange Street but Dowd’s vocals are straight up East Coast Country…… play it LOUD and play it often.
With so much going on in his songs, it’s easy to forget what a great songwriter Johnny Dowd has always been; his odes to Conway Twitty and Thomas Dorsey have to be heard to be believed; yet somehow I think both men would raise an eyebrow were they to ever hear these two ‘love songs’.
Obviously with an album so left-field and eclectic makes finding a Favourite after only a couple of plays nigh on impossible; but if forced I will have to spin a coin between Stuttering Wind, as if it had been around in the early 80’s I would have danced my ass off to this on a Friday night at Barmston Club; and the other is the nearest to a Country song as I’ve heard from Mr Dowd, Four Gray Walls…….. but don’t expect an invite to the Opry any time soon!
If I had a record store I don’t know where I would slot this album in today; as it’s not easy to pigeon hole in 2019 where the public need descriptions like leading a horse to water; but let’s go for Alt. Eclectic or Avant Garde Americana……. or just Damn good and intelligent Rock Music?