Dan Johnson spent much of his musical life in his native upstate New York. A few years ago, he meandered across the lake to Vermont and continued to establish himself as a rising star in the regional Americana singer-songwriter scene. In addition to recording with his band, the Expert Sidemen, Johnson has recently been gigging with rowdy bluegrass group Wild Branch.
On his new solo album, Magic Guitar, Johnson takes a quiet turn. Recorded live at the Richmond Public Library, the album is simply Johnson and his guitar. His humble thumb picking and open tuning pair well with his plainspoken, gritty voice. It's Johnson's most stripped-down record to date, and it showcases with restraint and grace his troubadour talent.
The gentle opener, "Binghamton," pays homage to the southern New York city where Johnson spent time and played at the Union Hotel. He sings of gathering with friends at a favorite beer joint, playing and drinking the time away.
Johnson's rendition of "Man of Constant Sorrow" echoes that of folk icon Bob Dylan, whose version is among the most famous. But this isn't mere hero worship. Without the jangly trappings of harmonica, Johnson's version is as raw and mournful as an early Delta blues tune.
"High Lonesome Hills" sketches a weary traveler wandering through ramshackle towns and harsh lands. Wrestling with inner turmoil, he keeps moving to ward off the pain of solitude. "There's fire here; it's bright / But lord knows it won't keep away the chill / The only way to stay warm is to keep moving / In these high lonesome hills," Johnson sings.
The title track flows like a classic Western movie scene. A cowboy passing through Nacogdoches, Texas, spies a guitar in a pawn shop, picks it up and plays it under moonlit skies all across the Lone Star State.
"I Won't Hide You" is a moral credo about standing by your word and keeping promises. It's a bit clunky near the end, where Johnson stretches a few verses too long. Still, the overall message is refreshingly earnest.
On "Pennsylvania Line," Johnson wishes he were in sunny California rather than languishing in a cheap hotel. In thinking of all the places he's been and the Greyhound bus he'll soon catch, the singer evokes the classic folk trope of hitting the road.
Reminiscent of a wide Western landscape, Magic Guitar is a no-frills, austere affair that lulls the listener into gentle contemplation. The sense of evenness and uniformity in Johnson's songs makes the album feel like one extended cut. As such, it's a perfect soundtrack for getting lost on country roads.