With a classic country sound creeping its way back on to country radio and new eyes on the songs that made the genre great in the first place, cover albums can play a major role in introducing a new generation to the artists that have shaped the genre. Just look at Alan Jackson’s Under the Influence and Daryle Singletary’s That’s Why I Sing This Way; albums that saw artists of the highest caliber not just paying homage to those songs, but making them their own.
With its release in early November, Royce Johns’ sophomore effort One Last Two Step is the next chapter in the great book of cover albums. However, what makes this special, much like Singletary’s album, are the originals that not only fit in with the other tunes, but allow the album to shine.
We chatted with Johns about choosing the songs for the album, as well as the success of his debut album Truckstop Souvenirs, his approach to new music and more!
Pro Country: Your bio mentions that while many of your friends were listening to mainstream radio, you were more drawn to bands like AC/DC, Van Halen and Aerosmith. What was it about classic artists like that that interested you?
Royce Johns: I always liked listening to classic rock because I always wanted to be a guitar player. And I thought those bands were a hell of a lot cooler than what mainstream pop radio was doing in 2009.
PC: Your bio also mentions that you began playing guitar at a young age. What was it about the guitar and music that connected with you so early in your life?
RJ: It was being able to make and re-create those sounds my guitar heroes played in all those 60’s-80’s records that got me hooked.
PC: At what point did that early interest in music translate into you wanting to pursue it as a career?
RJ: When I was 19, I decided to learn a few songs on my acoustic that I could sing and play. The major issue was that I knew nothing about singing, and never sang in my life. I was just determined to figure it out, and I’m still just trying to figure it out.
PC: Your bio mentions that your love of country music coincided with playing in your cover band Lincoln Roadhouse. What was it about the genre and playing music from the great, traditional artists that drew you to the genre?
RJ: I loved playing guitar in a rock band, but I just didn’t have a voice that could keep up. Then we started implementing some country covers in, and I noticed that they fit a lot better with my voice. I also used to listen to some classic country when I was younger, so it just stuck. It also allowed me to do solo acoustic shows, which let me do as many shows as I wanted to.
PC: Given you had spent most of your life connected with music in some way, what emotions were you feeling as you were preparing to release music for the first time with your debut EP Truckstop Souvenirs?
RJ: Truckstop Souvenirs was a compilation of songs from my friend Robert Deitch’s catalogue. I was about a year into playing solo shows when I met Robert in 2016. He had been writing in Nashville for the better part of a decade by the time I met him, and I had only written about five songs at that time. About two years passed by, then me and Robert re-connected and he introduced me to some of the Nashville culture of songwriting and recording. Honestly, it was all his songs, and he produced the whole deal. There’s no way I’d have half the traction I have today if he hadn’t taken me under his wing. Recording in Nashville was a humbling experience, it really just shows you how much you don’t know about music.
PC: The song “Truckstop Souvenirs” has since earned well over 300,000 streams on Spotify, with the music video also surpassing 100,000 views. How validating was it for you to have that kind of tangible success out of the gate? What do you think it is about the song that has allowed it to connected with listeners the way it has?
RJ: It was pretty cool, mostly because it was a song that didn’t even get pitched in Nashville when he wrote it 7-8 years ago. I’d bet my last nickel that if a major artist would record and release it with a promo budget, it would be a number one. I remember when Robert first showed me that song, my first question was, “Why hasn’t anybody recorded this?” It just hits on so many levels with every generation, and I can’t believe the amount of people that have connected with that song and video. It was a strike of luck with getting the thousands of shares on Facebook, which led to around 450k views on that platform alone. Another wildcard I didn’t even know about was TikTok. There’s a thread with 850+ videos of people “TikToking” to “Truckstop Souvenirs,” which means millions of streams that I didn’t even know about until July this year. I found that these people were making these videos spanning right from the release in 2018, and I didn’t even know. It also helps that Spotify still generates 10-12k streams a month from their algorithmic playlists alone, even after being released over two years ago.
I think the reason it connects with people and cuts through the noise is because it’s a story. It’s a story with sustenance and unique phases and lines. It’s a story with payoff. It keeps you listening and it makes you feel something. It’s a story about love, sacrifice and loss. It’s country music to its core, and that’s why I knew I had to record it when Robert first played it for me in his living room.
PC: As you were preparing the release of your new album One Last Two Step, was there a level of pressure you felt, internally or externally, to match or surpass the success of “Truckstop Souvenirs”?
RJ: The pressure of re-creating or surpassing the initial success of Truckstop Souvenirs was eminent, but it didn’t influence or weigh in on any of the decisions of One Last Two Step. Yes, in the back of my mind, I didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment if it didn’t surpass the Truckstop Souvenirs success that I got lucky with. I just want to make records, and continue to make full-picture records that people will sit and listen to. Some will be more successful than others, and that’s fine. I would hope that the more popular ones will bring in an audience to listen to the less popular ones.
PC: “One Last Two Step” opens its album with a fiddle-driven, honky tonking song. Why did you decide to make that the title track of the album?
RJ: There was much debate on which track to use as the title. It initially was going to be “A Fixture At The Greenwood Lounge,” mostly because it’s my favorite original on the record. I decided to use the shorter title, and the most “single” style of song as the title track for the sake of simplicity.
PC: You included several covers on One Last Two Step, including “Good Hearted Woman,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “You Are My Sunshine.” What went into your cover selection for the album, and what approach did you bring to those songs in the studio?
RJ: It’s kind of a funny story about the covers. Really, I only had “One Last Two Step” and “Dance On Johnny” recorded from 2019, and I wasn’t planning on making an album with them. But by chance, I met Billy Lawson in Muscle Shoals and we just tracked a couple covers that I thought my grandma would like, mostly as an intrinsic pet project. But, I was just floored with what he came up with, so I continued to make trips down to Alabama, and around a year later, we had 11 tracks finished.
PC: What do you hope listeners take away from One Last Two Step after listening all the way through?
RJ: I included the covers that had some of my favorite singers that have influenced me, weaved in and out of songs that were written by some of the best country songwriters today. With mainstream country being the climate that it is today, me and Robert joked that it very well could be one of the last traditionally themed records released, hence “One Last Two Step.”
PC: You’ve opened for several big-name artists, including Sammy Kershaw, Collin Raye and Aaron Tippin. What can you take away from those experiences that you can use in your own career moving forward?
RJ: Honestly, opening for large artists isn’t all cracked up to be what people think it is. It’s cool, but in reality, they’ve been around so long and have seen the best of the best, so opening for that caliber of player is really just a quick handshake and it’s over. Nowadays, they really don’t have much incentive to even have an outside opener. Even if I brought another 50-75 people to a Sammy Kershaw show, logistically it doesn’t make a dent in his 1,000-1,500 ticket sales. But, they were super nice and encouraging when I got to meet them. I would just hope someday I’d have enough traction to be able to bring some value to the table and actually tour and open for one of my country music heroes like Sammy for a stint of time.
PC: 2020 has altered most of the plans of artists. Of the things you can control, what are your plans for the rest of the year and going into 2021?
RJ: 2020 has been a bummer, but it has given me more off time to record and reflect on what my goals in music really are. It’s probably the absolute worst time to release a 11 track album, but I couldn’t sit on these songs any longer than I had to. Going forward, I’m going to try and create more conceptual records that really tie each song to the theme and idea. It’s easy to record a bunch of songs over time and release them in an album, but it takes more thought and time to do concept records, and that’s what I ultimately want to do.
*Royce’s music is featured on The Best of Pro Country playlist!*
**All images courtesy of Royce Johns Facebook page**