Johnny McGowan: One Man, Two Hands, Too Many Bands
He’s one of those cats you’ve taken note of for years. A familiar presence, a fixture of the scene. He’s been, at various times, an instigator, an organizer, a sideman, a teacher, a frontman, a behind-the-scenes studio guy, an emcee, heck he even DJ’ed a party at my house once. And had the place jumpin’, if I correctly recall. The point is, even if you don’t know who Johnny McGowan is, if you regularly go see live music in Atlanta – especially in the roots/blues/rockabilly/country realm, but also East Atlanta indie rock – you’ve seen him play, and chances are you thought to yourself, “Damn, that mofo’s good!” If you already know of Johnny, especially if you’re a local musician in those aforementioned genres, then you’re quite aware of his skills on the guitar, his rep as a go-to guy in the Atlanta music community, and you might even play (or have played) in one of the numerous and varied local bands he’s been a part of going on 25 years now: Johnny Knox & Hi-Test, Blacktop Rockets, Cletis & His City Cousins, The Marks of Excellence, Willie Heath Neal & the Damned Ole Opry, Grinder Nova, Dry Gulch, The Burmese Crush. He’s accompanied Wanda Jackson, sat in with Andrew & the Disapyramids, and Puddles’ Pity Party. The list goes on. Yeah, you’ve seen Johnny McGowan play.
But chances are, you don’t really know Johnny McGowan – his inspirations and passions, his triumphs and disappointments and downfalls, his storied past and his optimistic hopes for today and the future. A lot of stuff I was unaware of before meeting with him one recent evening at the Porter. I just knew that he’s always been friendly toward me, he can be quirky, he’s been known at times to come across a bit cocky, and he can play the ever-lovin’ dickens out of a guitar. He sorta strikes me as a mix of Gomer Pyle, Nicolas Cage and, I don’t know, Duane Eddy or something.
“When I first moved here, the little turnaround right there [in Little Five Points, behind Clothing Warehouse], I had a 1971 VW bus that I loaded my chest of drawers – I actually just had a bungee cord holdin’ ‘em in – and I found this piece of pipe that I hung my clothes on, and I had my amp, and I slept in it right at that little turnaround the whole summer. You know, I was [washing up] at the bathrooms at the Circle K.” It was 1992. Johnny was 20, 21 years old.
“Whenever my tire went bad,” he continues, “there was the VW repair shop up the street, and they had a couple raggly VW buses up there, and I would go there – this is terrible! – and I would take off a tire that was good – the whole rim and everything – and put my tire and rim on that one, and then put the good tire on my van, and then spray-paint it white so it all matched. Horrible!”
McGowan grew up in Knoxville, “pretty hardscrabble,” as he describes it. “My mom had a small… when I say small, I mean, small house, and there was only one bedroom, and me and my brother slept on sleeping bags in the living room. And every day we’d roll our sleeping bags and put ‘em away and go to school. At night we’d roll ‘em back out again. That’s how we lived until my stepfather came on the scene. He helped build kind of a second story. I remember when we finally got the roof covered, to get to the attic, the upstairs, we used a ladder. I took my rolled up sleeping bag, went upstairs, and rolled it out, and that was my new bedroom. I remember waking up after it had snowed, and snow had blown up under the eaves, and was on my sleeping bag. But I had a bedroom! And I didn’t have a [glass] window, it was plastic. Welcome to east Tennessee!
“My mom had divorced my dad when I was five, and he showed up irregularly. He was a truck driver, and he’d show up at Christmastime with a box as big as a dining table full of cereal that, you know, had fallen off the back of a semi truck. And that would be his gift to me and my brother… My mom used to tell me, ‘Oh, your daddy could get into a barroom brawl.’ I’m like, ‘Really?’ She said, ‘Oh yeah. You knew to get the hell outta the way when he took his teeth out and put ‘em in his pocket!’
“I moved [to Atlanta] because my cousin lived here, and I was a big fan of Tinsley Ellis. And I was a big rockabilly fan, too, but in Knoxville nobody wanted to play [it]. It didn’t exist. My cousin was into blues. Back in the early ‘80s, when I was a kid, he played me the movie The Blues Brothers. When you’re 12 years old, that’s mindblowing! You don’t really understand it, but you love it. He used to play harmonica, and he’d play harmonica along with the movie, and I’d dance to Ray Charles playing ‘Shake a Tail Feather.’
“I remember coming down here and visiting, and that was in ’88. I was still in high school, too young to get into any venue, but I saw Luther Johnson play…and they had this guy Detroit Dave on bass, and Barrelhouse Bob Page on piano. I saw that at some crappy little venue, snuck in, and I just remember going, ‘I wanna do that.’”
Discovering, along the way, musical heroes such as Johnny Burnette, Paul Burlison, Jerry Reed and the Fabulous Thunderbirds, McGowan had played with bands back in Knoxville, where he acquired the rockabilly-ready nickname Cadillac Johnny Fins. By the time he started navigating Atlanta’s music scene, however, he felt it was time for a fresh moniker. Working night stock at the since-shuttered Big Star grocery store at Ansley Mall with a guy named Orlando, he started calling himself Knoxville as a goof. Professionally, so as not to get confused with the gross-out stunt buffoon Johnny Knoxville, he became Johnny Knox.
He met some rockabilly enthusiasts and joined their band The Rockafellas, which led to him meeting local musician Dave Weil, at the time with a band called Sweatin’ Bullets. By the mid-90s, during the heyday of the Star Bar’s “Redneck Underground” scene, McGowan and Weil would be playing together in the Blacktop Rockets, which they still do to this day.
During that same time, McGowan involved himself in the local blues scene. On Mondays he would go to Stoney Brooks’ blues jam at Little Elmo’s, a now-defunct Buckhead joint. Before long, he was playing alongside the old-timers in Brooks’ band Juju Root. Later on, he’d emulate that Little Elmo’s scene by hosting his own long-running Monday night jam night at the Northside Tavern. Although the focus was originally on blues, McGowan’s Northside nights soon evolved into more of a catch-all musical potluck, where one week McGowan might bring out a tongue-in-cheek twanger written for Cletis & His City Cousins, while another week would mark the debut performance of Grinder Nova’s James-Bond-meets-Tijuana-Brass getup. Then there was his brief but fruitful stint hosting a Thursday night rockabilly jam at a long-gone place called Ya-Yas in Decatur.
“The owner [of Ya-Yas] was completely off the chain,” Johnny remembers. “I’d show up and knock on the door at like six o’clock or seven, and all of a sudden I’d see his head come up from behind the bar – he was sleeping on the bar mats – and he’d have this white powdery substance around his nose. His wife came at him one night with a butcher knife while we were playing. It was insanity! It was an old Buick dealership.” Johnny Knox & Hi-Test, the first band he fronted, basically developed out of the Ya-Yas nights.
After spotting McGowan tearing it up one night in the late ‘90s, a man portraying himself as a music industry bigwig, owner of an up-and-coming label called Galaxie Records, offered the musician, then in his late twenties, a big wad of cash to record a Johnny Knox album. Tracked in New York City, with Paul Shaffer, Will Lee and Lenny Pickett guesting, Doin’ What It Takes was never officially released. Turns out, the “label owner” was just a sleazeball whose fortune had been made trafficking meth. The dude was arrested, his assets seized by the FBI, and McGowan was left with nothing to show for years of hope and hard work.
“And that’s when it all went wrong…” Johnny chuckles. “I’m glad I can laugh about it, because it was a real tragedy. I literally had a nervous breakdown. I was in a marriage that was loveless. I was in a noncreative environment. I had put the best part of four years into this thing, and it wasn’t gonna happen.”
It was shortly after this that Johnny began to distance himself from the nickname, and use his own family surname.
“I had an epiphany that I didn’t know who I was inside. I had this duality. I was John McGowan – a good person – but I was also this other fictitious character, Johnny Knox, with a pompadour and the cool pose, you get the idea. And I didn’t know who I was. I got divorced [from my first wife]. We got together when we were 21, and we were in a state of arrested development. Neither one of us could grow as individuals because we were together as a couple. Once we finally separated, I figured out me… It took me a while, and I try every day. I’ve made mistakes in my life. I admit it. And I’m trying to pay it forward, too… There’s been a lot of heartbreak in there.”
McGowan’s been involved in two terrible accidents in Atlanta, the memories of which will forever haunt his thoughts. In 2003, driving home from a night out at the Echo Lounge and Star Bar to have a late night jam session with friends, Johnny lost control of his car. His passenger, his close friend Scott Rogers, guitarist for Atlanta band The Penetrators and the driving force behind Drive-Invasion, was thrown from the vehicle and died at the scene. Then last year, four bystanders were injured – one in particular seriously – during the Atlanta Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride charity event after McGowan lost control of his cycle while doing a little showboating.
“Let’s not talk about that. I don’t want to talk about that. I don’t want to talk about the accident I had with Scott, either,” he tells me, before an extended uncomfortable pause. “I tell you what – I did think, at some point it’d be nice to get a break. You know. I had that accident with Scott. The middle part of my life, the record company stole that away. And then I had this [cycle] accident, you know. It was completely an accident. No malice whatsoever. And at some point I think, you know, it’s hard to be punched in the gut that hard so many times. And really, the big one was my stepfather getting killed. That was in 2001. He was a major influence on me. He basically got me into music. And he took care of my mother when she was sick. He lived on a farm all his life. Then moved to Nashville as a songwriter. Lived in New York as a street painter. He was in the Vietnam War. Drove a truck for 25 years. Wrote songs. And he was bush hogging the mower, his neighbor’s area, and the tractor flipped over on him and killed him. The steering wheel punctured his chest. Boy, that one really… talk about kicked in the gut. I think about him a lot. I’ve got his acoustic guitar. A 1962 [Gibson] J-45. And a lot of really good songs have been written on it since then.
“I want to smile and laugh,” he emphasizes. “I mean, these things are the things that hurt, that you’ve got to go through in life. I’m not here to hurt anybody. I think music is about telling people, ‘I understand what you’ve gone through. I’ve gone through it.’ It’s empathy. It’s letting them know that you’re not alone. You can identify. And I’ve written some dark songs, because of all these horrible things… And lyrically, you have to go there. Every time. You have to mentally put yourself in that spot. I realized that I don’t enjoy it. I don’t wanna sing about the dark stuff. I like the songs that are fun, and it gets people lifted in their spirit, you know.”
That’s why he’s so enthused about new, forthcoming records he’s been making with Blacktop Rockets (“a lot of the songs are positive and upbeat”) and Grinder Nova (“gonna blow people’s socks off”), and why he enjoys taking a detour into classic country music territory with Dry Gulch.
The latter band developed from the remnants of the Star Bar’s Honkytonk Extravaganza live band “Country Karaoke” nights started several years ago by local musician Rich DeSantis (Slim Chickens) as a weekly Wednesday night down-home twist on the 10 High’s popular Metalsome concept. As a member of the house band, McGowan would often clash with DeSantis, and eventually had a dust-up and quit, along with pedal steel guitarist Steve Stone and McGowan’s longtime drummer Mike Hammer (no relation to Mickey Spillane’s fictional hard-boiled detective, but a onetime member of both Cleveland’s Rubber City Rebels and Atlanta’s Lost Continentals). When the dust had cleared, Country Karaoke had been jettisoned in favor of Cowboy Karaoke, and Dry Gulch (McGowan, Stone, Hammer and bass guitarist Dave Roth, formerly of Insane Jane and Breeze Kings, among others) were christened the new house band, where they held court every Wednesday from the spring of 2015 ’til June of this year, when the late weeknights finally took their toll on the quartet of middle aged guys with wives and lives.
But fret not – Dry Gulch is not dust. They’re just limiting their gigs to selected one-offs presently (including Stomp and Stammer’s 20th Birthday Pre-Party at the Star Bar on Dec. 9th). Which is wonderful news, because maybe a weekend show’ll bring out more newcomers and old-timers alike who may’ve been dissuaded on a school night. I’m tellin’ ya – this band is fantastic, evoking the musical and community spirit of the Star Bar of yore. It’s not Jokey Karaoke; in fact, I don’t even think calling it karaoke is accurate. It’s more like a country music jam session – because other musicians do get up and play, along with the singers, and nearly all that join them are really on their game.
“The goal was to make people get up, have a good time, and make ‘em feel great. It’s all about getting your friends involved,” McGowan stresses, adding that Dry Gulch has worked up an arsenal of its own original songs in the same classic country vibe, with hopes to record and release them.
“Let’s see if we can hold it together,” offers Johnny, who in May married his adorable longtime girlfriend Ashley, a young woman who’s had a noticeable positive effect on him, not to mention acting as the air traffic controller on Cowboy Karaoke nights. “I’m hoping, at the start of the year, that we can get this moving, and really push forward. Get a record out,” he continues. “It would make me happy to bring some people together on this.”
Photo by Emily Butler Photography.