Americana Highways reviews Family Picnic


Johnny Dowd’s “Family Picnic”

August 28, 2019 H. R. Gertner

Zoom in close to a rose bush and all you see is thorns. Although twisted and hidden beauty still exists within the plant. Welcome to the music of Johnny Dowd in all its thorny beauty. For over thirty years Dowd has been taken the unexpected path, an iconoclast with few mates.

Family Picnic, Dowd’s 2019 release, out on Mother Jinx Records finds Johnny tilling the soil of unrequited love, murder, and characters struggling to live a twisted American dream. As Dowd sings album closer Thomas Dorsey, “I sing songs of lust and depravity, that’s the only kind of songs come out of me.” Electronic beats, keyboard flourish, and what Johnny deems “ice-cream chords” drive a record composed of waltzes, shuffles, and boom-chuck rhythms. Dowd shifts between his bent-but-not-broke singing voice and a spoken word approach that succeeds where lesser artist would be chastised for “trying to rap.”

The instrumental “Hoodoo” preps the listener for an unusual experience as electronic beats, carny organ, and electric guitar collide with a xylorimba. Dowd leans on reliable past collaborators on this release including Michael Edmondson (backing vocals, guitar, xylorimba) and Kim Sherwood-Caso (backing vocals), while he covers vocal, guitar, and keyboard duties himself.

“The Man of Your Dreams” follows, “I’m not the man of your dreams, that is obvious to all,” Dowd sings. “If you must go, go slowly,” he duets with Kim Sherwood-Caso. The two voices grate against one another initially, but like sandpaper they smooth and blend together, hypnotizing your ears. Vicksburg dives into a world that, “was live by the sword, die by the gun.”

Dark tales abound on much of the record; the darkness deepens in the loneliness of “Walking the Floor,” “people around me are so computerized, I see the fear in their eyes, I look at them, they look away, it’s just another horrible day”, he continues, “I’m sad and lonely, nervous and depressed, my life without you is a big f*%#ing mess.”

Family Picnic is a survey of characters that would be at home in a Harry Crews or Larry Brown novel. Four Gray Walls dark um-pa-pa like folk polka dirge is almost fun until the lyrical punch lands, “a doctor can fix a damaged heart, replace what’s been broken with artificial parts, but the damage you cause only God can repair, whether I live or die I no longer care.”

Before the record risks becoming too depressing, a goofiness slips into the mix on Conway Twitty. “I wanna make some noise, I don’t want no peace and quiet, I’m here tonight to start a mother f#$*ing riot, I love the bright lights of New York City and I want to be a star like Conway Twitty,” Dowd sings. Let’s Have a Party keeps the party going with 80’s era keyboard driven electronic beats and synthesized tones while Dowd sings, “let’s have a party, just you and me, weekend is here, now I’m free…life is so hard, working class, work week is long, money don’t last.”

While songs about longing, loneliness, missteps, and murder are nothing new to the Americana songbook or Johnny Dowd’s work, Dowd continually reinvents his approach to these topics in a way that finds renewed energy and purpose.

 – Original Article

Live @ The Greystones (Family Picnic review by Soundblab)




 by Kevin Orton Rating:10


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.

 – Original Article


Live @ the Thunderbolt (Family Picnic review by



Johnny Dowd – Family Picnic

Guy Peters – photos: Kat Dalton – March 27, 2019

“I sing songs of lust and depravity / That’s the only kind of songs that come out of me / I apologize but I can’t stop / The devil’s gonna run me until the day that I drop”. Je kan Johnny Dowd van allerhande zondes verdenken, maar een gebrek aan zelfkennis is er geen van. En als Twinkle Twinkle (2018) zo ver doorgedreven was in z’n idiosyncratische waanzin dat het aanvoelde als een eindpunt, dan is Family Picnic een voorzichtige terugkeer naar iets conventioneler terrein, al is het dan met de bedenking dat ‘doorsnee’ altijd buiten bereik zal blijven. En dat is maar goed ook.

Bovenstaande verzen komen trouwens uit “Thomas Dorsey”, een song uit Chainsaw Of Life, dat Dowd in een vorig decennium uitbracht met Jim White. Een ode aan de grote gangmaker van de gospelmuziek, en tegelijkertijd een knipoog naar zijn eigen verdorvenheid, of toch die van zijn songs. Het is Dowd ten voeten uit: observator en participant in één, personage in zijn eigen songs, en het beeld dat hij deze keer ophangt is ook nu regelmatig eentje van gebroken illusies en totale afwezigheid van een beschaafd vernislaagje. De titeltrack start dan wel met een idyllisch beeld dat intussen deel is gaan uitmaken van de Amerikaanse psyche, de perfecte familie, maar al snel drukt Dowd je met de neus op de feiten: “How much emptiness can you swallow”?

Wat Dowd onderscheidt van andere onheilsprofeten is natuurlijk dat hij die boodschap niet brengt met een doemerig serieux of duffe ironie, maar met zelfspot, venijnig inzicht en een zwak voor absurditeiten. Dowd is een verwant van de kermisklanten, van de marginale outsiders die je ineens overrompelen met een barrage aan historische weetjes, met figuranten die weggelopen lijken uit de gemene verhalen van Jim Thompson. Hier slaan ze aan het walsen (“The Man Of Your Dreams”, “Four Gray Walls”), jonglerend met hun zonden en een zekere gelatenheid (“Im not the man of your dreams / That’s obvious to all”). Ze weten hoe erg het gesteld is.

Dowd neemt opnieuw het merendeel van het werk voor z’n rekening, maar krijgt ondersteuning van oude bekenden Mike Edmondson (decennia geleden al een vaste sparringpartner) op gitaar en xylorimba en de al even bekende Kim Sherwood-Caso op backing vocals. Er duiken nog altijd brommende en zeurende toetsen op, net als plastieken beats, waardoor het hier en daar lijkt alsof Dowd nog altijd mikt op een vanuit de roots afgevuurde hiphop (de titeltrack, “Shameless”, “Let’s Have A Party”), maar de effecten zijn een graad of twee minder vervreemdend dan op het drieluik That’s Your Wife On The Back Of My HorseExecute American Folklore en Twinkle Twinkle. Misschien was die hint al te vinden in het artwork, met de houtgravure van Mike Massingham.

In onze recensie van een vorige plaat beweerden we nog dat je een figuur als Dowd nodig hebt om een genre fris te kunnen houden, en dat geldt net zo goed voor Family Picnic. Ondanks de gekte en de waanzin, maken deze songs vooral duidelijk dat Dowd als geen ander weet wat songs doet tikken, wat de essentie van een goede song is, en hoe hij die ondanks al die ingrepen toch overeind houdt of nonchalant in de lucht houdt met die brede grijns. Korte instrumental “Hoodoo” klinkt alsof werk van Freddie King en Link Wray door een Fisher Price-mangel gehaald wordt, maar is wel rete-aanstekelijk. Hetzelfde geldt voor de breed uitgesmeerde blues van “Vicksburg”, dat een hoofdstuk uit de Amerikaanse Burgeroorlog belicht, de met kitscherige synths opgebouwde “Walking The Floor” en “Little Jimmy”, of de verrassend gave ballade “Dream On” met z’n mooie slaperigheid. Deze man beheerst z’n kunst.

De nieuwsgierige passanten die een aantal albums geleden afhaakten ga je met Family Picnic niet terugwinnen, daarvoor is Dowds muziek te grillig en te eigenzinnig, maar doordat de songs zo verdomd goed in elkaar zitten (na twee beluisteringen klinkt het gros als bewerkingen van langvergeten klassiekers uit een onbestemd verleden) en elkaar aan zo’n hoog tempo opvolgen (veertien stuks in 37 minuten) is dit misschien wel ’s mans meest toegankelijke plaat van het voorbije decennium. “I wanna be a star” verzucht hij helemaal aan het einde van “Conway Twitty”. Te nemen met een korrel zout, maar tegelijk zou je ’t hem gunnen, al is het maar omdat zijn oeuvre door die combinatie van meedogenloze eerlijkheid, spitsvondigheid en consistente krankzinnigheid zoveel te vertellen heeft over het doorgeslagen Zottenfeest dat menselijke interactie zo vaak is. De dwaas van het gezelschap heeft wel vaker het laatste woord.

Johnny Dowd speelt op 19 april in Het Ijle Land (Gent). Meer (buitenlandse) date op de website. Niet te missen.

   – Original article

“I sing songs of lust and depravity / That’s the only child or songs that come out of me / I apologize but I can’t stop / The devil’s gonna run me until the day I drop”. You can suspect Johnny Dowd of all kinds of sins, but a lack of self-knowledge is none of them. And if Twinkle Twinkle (2018) had gone so far in its idiosyncratic madness that it felt like an endpoint, then Family Picnic is a cautious return to something more conventional terrain, even though the ‘average’ is always out of reach will stay. And that’s a good thing too.


The above verses are from “Thomas Dorsey”, a song from Chainsaw Of Life , released by Dowd in a previous decade with Jim White. An ode to the great pacemaker of gospel music, and at the same time a nod to his own depravity, or that of his songs. It is full of Dowd: observer and participant in one, character in his own songs, and the image he hangs this time is now also regularly one of broken illusions and total absence of a civilized layer of varnish. The title track does start with an idyllic image that has meanwhile become part of the American psyche , the perfect family, but soon Dowd presses you on the facts: “How much emptiness can you swallow”?

What distinguishes Dowd from other prophets is of course that he does not bring that message with a doomed, serious or stupid irony, but with self-mockery, vicious insight and a weakness for absurdities. Dowd is a relative of the fairground customers, of the marginal outsiders who suddenly surprise you with a barrage of historical tidbits, with extras who seem to run away from the nasty stories of Jim Thompson. Here they are waltzing (“The Man Of Your Dreams”, “Four Gray Walls”), juggling their sins and a certain resignation ( “Im not the man of your dreams / That’s obvious to all” ). They know how bad things are.

Dowd once again takes care of most of the work, but receives support from old acquaintances Mike Edmondson (a regular sparring partner decades ago) on guitar and xylorimba and the equally famous Kim Sherwood-Caso on backing vocals. Humming and whining keys are still popping up, just like plastic beats, making it seem like here and there Dowd is still aiming for a hip hop fired from the roots (the title track, “Shameless”, “Let’s Have A Party”), but the effects are a degree or two less alienating than in the triptych That’s Your Wife On The Back Of My HorseExecute American Folklore and Twinkle Twinkle. Maybe that hint could already be found in the artwork, with the wood engraving by Mike Massingham.

In our review of a previous album, we claimed that you need a figure like Dowd to keep a genre fresh, and that goes just as well for Family Picnic . Despite the craziness and madness, these songs make it clear that Dowd knows better than anyone what makes songs tick, what the essence of a good song is, and how despite all these interventions he keeps it afloat or nonchalantly in the air with that broad grin. Short instrumental“Hoodoo” sounds like work by Freddie King and Link Wray is being fetched by a Fisher Price mangle, but it is very contagious. The same applies to the widely spread blues of “Vicksburg”, which highlights a chapter from the American Civil War, the “Walking The Floor” and “Little Jimmy” built with kitschy synths, or the surprisingly cool ballad “Dream On” with its nice sleepiness. This man controls his art.

With Family Picnic you will not win back the curious passersby who dropped out a few albums ago , Dowds music is too capricious and quirky, but because the songs are so damn well put together (after two listenings, it sounds like edits of long forgotten classics an indefinable past) and following each other at such a fast pace (fourteen in 37 minutes) is perhaps the man’s most accessible record of the past decade. “I want to be a star”he sighs completely at the end of “Conway Twitty”. To be taken with a grain of salt, but at the same time you would like him, if only because his combination of ruthless honesty, witty and consistent insanity has so much to say about the crazy Feast that human interaction is so common. The fool of the company often has the last word.

Johnny Dowd plays on April 19 in Het Ijle Land (Ghent). More (foreign) date on the website . Can not be missed.

 – Translation by Google


Live @ The 100 Club (review by MOJO and UNCUT)