Music has always done something infectious to Jeff Warren Johnston. He recalls wanting to be a musician as early as when he was a first grader. He couldn’t deny the way music made him feel.
Now, Johnston has released an album of his own, Undiscovered Country, that he hopes has that same effect on listeners that his influences had on him.
Johnston is now starting to see the results. After well over 200,000 views of his first song release “El Toro,” Johnston doubled down with “That Woman,” a song that has received more than 200,000 views itself, and this week, became his first song to chart on the Texas Regional Radio chart.
Hear from Johnston about his love of music, his songwriting process, Undiscovered Country, why you should support independent artists, and more!
Pro Country: Who were your biggest musical influences growing up?
Jeff Warren Johnston: There’s a lot of them! The earliest were probably Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. In high school, I was more of a rock-and-roller. I got into the Beatles and Led Zeppelin and a lot of classic rock bands. Jimi Hendrix was another huge influence, I credit him for inspiring me to play the guitar. I didn’t really get absorbed into country music until I was an adult. I’ve always loved country music like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, but I didn’t know a whole lot about it beyond them until my late twenties. I’d say Willie and Waylon are still my two biggest country influences. I’ve expanded to artists like George Jones and Hank Williams, who influenced pretty much everybody (laughs). I really love classic country. There’s not a whole lot I listen to that didn’t come out at least 30 years ago (laughs). Roger Miller was a big influence because I like to infuse humor into a lot of the music I write, and he’s the one that confirmed to me that you can really get away with that.
PC: Your website bio says that your early attempts at music were frowned upon by your family. What was it about music that spoke to you at that time in your life?
JWJ: I couldn’t really put my finger on it, it just moved me like nothing else. They say music is the finest of the fine arts; and they’re probably talking about classical music more specifically, but even classical music did something to me when I was a kid. My parents have enjoyed music here and there, my mom more so than my dad, but I think they were terrified of the idea of me becoming a homeless, starving artist who can’t get their act together. There’s a cliche that a stereotypical artist gets hooked on drugs and can’t keep a job. I think they assumed all those things would happen if I pursued a music career (laughs).
PC: When did you realize that you wanted to pursue music as a career?
JWJ: There was no precise moment, it was just a gradual awakening when I was a kid. I told my first grade music teacher that I wanted to be a musician, so it happened that long ago (laughs).
PC: As you were putting Undiscovered Country together, you said, “I developed a deeper appreciation of the genre and became comfortable with my southern roots.” What was it about the music that really spoke to you and prompted that appreciation?
JWJ: I grew up in Austin, Texas in the late 70s, and grew up in the early 80s. By then, Austin felt like a separate entity from the rest of Texas. It was a little more modern and had a more hip scene. Punk rock had come through town, and the blues thing had already happened as well. Country hadn’t dominated the scene in Austin since the 70s. My sister’s may have a slight Texas accent, and my parents spoke with a heavy draw. My friends would come over and be a little taken aback by it. There was just no denying that these people were country (laughs). Some kids were a little less well-mannered than others and would say things and make fun of their accents on the bus. My southern roots were almost a source of embarrassment for me at certain times. It was something that I kept hidden for a while. Only when I would visit extended family in Arkansas was when I wouldn’t be so self-conscious about it. I lost touch with it for a while, until I started digging into country music and matured a little bit. It allowed me to reconnect with my roots and my upbringing and make peace with it. It allowed me to say that there’s nothing bad about it and it was nothing to be ashamed of, and that I should actually be proud of it.
PC: Why did you decide to release “El Toro” as the first track from Undiscovered Country?
JWJ: El Toro was one of my favorite tracks on the album. I felt like it should be my introduction to the world. It has a lush arrangement. It’s a slow building song with just the guitar and vocals in the beginning, and eventually builds with the string quartet and the backing harmonies. It tells a colorful, complete story, and I’m really proud of it. I think it’s one of the strongest songs on the record.
PC: What went into the decision to release “That Woman” as the newest single from the album?
JWJ: I’ve got a radio promoter, and she said that was the one (laughs). “That Woman” is upbeat and has a good swing to it. I think swinging is making a bit of a comeback right now, and I think she singled out for that reason. I’ll be doing another single early next year, and it’s probably going to be the track of “Wild Eyes,” which is a ballad, but it’s more upbeat and has a driving rhythm to it.
PC: You’ve said that some of your best songs come from telling the stories of other people, as you do on “Weddin’ Bells Never Served Me Well.” What is it about that kind of storytelling that appeals to you and brings out the best in you as a writer?
JWJ: I think you have to go beyond yourself a lot of the time, unless you’re a one-in-a-million type of person (laughs). I’ve had a lot of pretty strange experiences in my life that most people haven’t, but they’d be hard to put into a song, especially a country song. I think it’s important to be able to think from another person’s perspective and put yourself in their shoes, because if you only think about yourself all the time, you risk running out of material because you’re limited by your own experiences, and you can only tell the kind of story that comes from your point of view. I like to keep my options open and be able to tell a lot of different kinds of stories. It keeps me prolific, it keeps me working, and it keeps me going. I’ve suffered a few dry spells and really long bouts with writer’s block, and if you want to ward that off, you have to be open to some other points of view and other interpretations of things. I approach songwriting more like a novelist approaches writing. I want to tell a good story if I can. It’s not always necessary to tell a story, because there’s plenty of good songs that don’t tell stories, but I think the majority of the best ones do.
PC: You had several big name players on the Undiscovered Country album, including Lloyd Maines, Redd Volkert (Merle Haggard) and Kevin Smith (Willie Nelson). What was it like to work with such high-caliber musicians on the album?
JWJ: At first, it was a little intimidating. I went into this project thinking that I was a pretty good guitar player, and had planned on doing a lot of the lead guitar myself, but when I had the option to work with people like that, it was a “Why not?” kind of moment (laughs). Redd makes it sound like a proper country guitar, whereas if I did it, it would sound like a mix of country, blues, and rock and roll, which is cool, but I was specifically targeting the country sound for this record. I think the outcome was worth it. I just can’t compete with Redd Volkert as far as being country. It was fantastic to get to meet them and hear their interpretations of my songs. They came in and surprised me and changed the songs with their sound. I never would have thought to play a solo the way Redd would, so it was very exciting and gratifying to be able to witness that and have that experience.
PC: What do you hope listeners take away from the Undiscovered Country album after listening all the way through?
JWJ: Number one, I hope they enjoy it and find it entertaining. I think that’s the most important thing. Even if they can’t personally relate to all the themes, I hope that they find it entertaining. I hope they can connect with it on a personal level when I’ve made an effort to connect in that way (laughs). I hope the songs where I attempting to be funny make them laugh, and helps them forget their troubles momentarily.
PC: What are your plans for the rest of 2019 and beyond?
JWJ: I just broke the top 100 today on the Texas Regional Radio Chart. “That Woman” hit number 99. That doesn’t sound so amazing to artists that fare better, but this is my first time out. I’m independent and have a record label that I started myself, so for me, that’s quite an accomplishment. We’ve decided to extend the promotion at least another three weeks, so I’m going to keep promoting this single for the next month or so, and then I’m going to start getting my funds together and looking to promote the next one early next year!
PC: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
JWJ: Look for the independent musicians, because they need your support. There’s plenty of them, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff that may not sound exactly like what Nashville is throwing at you. I think most of the best music is undiscovered. That’s part of why I made the title of the album Undiscovered Country. In any genre, most artists who aren’t born into wealth can’t really properly promote themselves. I often wonder how many masterpieces are out there that never get heard by a large number of people. It boggles my mind when I think about it too much. I hope people continue to support independent music and continue to seek it out.
*Images courtesy of McGuckin PR and Jeff Warren Johnston Facebook Page*