Blues-rock guitarist and vocalist Gordie “Grady” Johnson may be best-known in Canada for his work with Big Sugar but after relocating to Austin, Texas a few years ago, he’s been keeping busy with his new three-piece country-metal project, Grady.
Hard-edged and fast, the band has been referred to by Jello Biafra as “the missing link between Junior Brown and Black Flag.”
Johnson is also busy with his work as a producer. He worked with Joel Plaskett to produce Ashtray Rock—an album which tore up the ECMAs this year, winning seven top awards. …And word is he’ll be heading into the studio to work with a few Newfoundlanders in the near future.
Elling Lien spoke with him by phone to talk about his reasons for moving from Toronto to Austin, and what he’s looking at doing next.
Your album A Cup of Cold Poison is really gritty and heavy. The stuff you did with Big Sugar is quite different from this. What made head in such a different and heavy direction?
I changed where I lived and that had a lot to do with it. The musical environment in Toronto was quite a bit different from Austin, Texas. People know Texas as being like home of blues and honky tonk country, but there’s an incredible underground punk rock scene here as well.
What’s your connection to Austin?
I’ve been coming down here and playing for about a dozen years. I played Austin City Limits Festival and I really just loved the place and always dreamt I’d someday come down here and live. Then I just decided I was going to stop doing it someday and start doing it that day. I packed a suitcase and a guitar and got on an airplane and here I am.
Really? It was as easy as that?
I had a gig the next day.
That’s how to do it.
You know what they say: no guts no glory. I’m not sure about the glory part just yet, but the guts—I had those.
Speaking of glory, you won Best New Act at the Austin Music Awards, didn’t you?
Yeah, our first year here. This year we didn’t take any first place but it’s really funny that we got nominated in Best Blues Band category, Best Heavy Metal category, and the Best Rock.
People don’t know what to do with you.
We didn’t get nominated in the Country category, but we also got nominated as Best Mexican Entre. So I don’t know. It’s between us and the green enchiladas.
It seems you like things to be upturned and that’s part of your reason for heading to Austin. Is that accurate?
I moved to Austin just for more of my own sense of what I needed for inspiration. It kind of just fits in with who I am too. Between my love of music—and you couldn’t be in a better place for music—and the rural lifestyle. I like to wear my Wranglers everyday and my hat, and nobody thinks anything of it. I just like the pace of life here. I can’t believe it.
Since I’ve been here I’ve had run-ins with Willie Nelson and Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top. People like that are just walking the streets here, and have been really supportive of us. So when you have people like that telling you ‘Go Grady Go,’ you go.
…Whether you have it in you or not.
Oh, you find it somewhere.
We got Willie Nelson to be on our last record. He came in the studio and told a joke for us and it’s on the record. We got a phone call from Billie Gibbons saying how much he liked the record. When things like that happen to you, it keeps you really inspired.
Where I was at with Big Sugar, there was so much music business swirling around everything. The record label at the time, the state of the music industry at that time—it was a confused time for everybody—labels and managers and lawyers. It just felt it wasn’t about creativity anymore, it wasn’t about music.
I’d never done anything that I was supposed to do up until that point, so I didn’t feel as though I would start listening to anyone’s instructions.
It seems like Austin is a perfect environment for you then, from what I know about it. I read something that you said—they support their own, they go out to shows, they listen to local music. And the musicians are really supportive of each other.
Absolutely. It’s a fantastic music scene in that way.
You know what? I’ve been saying the same thing for years about Newfoundland and the Canadian Maritimes. It’s the only place in Canada where you can go hear an 80 year old man play a fiddle and see college kids dancing to it. You see that same thing in Austin. People have the same amount of respect for the older musicians as they do for the newest, latest punk-rock bands.
When Slayer came to town, for instance, I saw a lot of the same people I saw at a Willie Nelson show. People love good music. It’s not like you can only belong to one club.
That’s something I love about the Atlantic provinces, the culture there and how music fits in with that.
Is part of it because things aren’t as tied up the industry? I mean, people can eke a living out of it, but it’s not as much about getting ahead?
Yeah, it’s not about the industry as much. People are more concerned about how they’re perceived here at home. You can never forget you’re in Texas. If you’re in the bathroom at somebody’s house, they’ll have a Lone Star toilet paper dispenser and a piece of soap the colours of the Texas flag. They’ll have a Texas state flag on their front lawn. Anywhere you go you see bumper that say ‘Texan and Proud.’ There is such a strong regional identity and that’s exciting.
To me it’s inspiring to be around people who are so stoked to be right where they are. It’s not like you have big dreams of moving away to some place better.
With Big Sugar you were known for playing the Canadian national anthem often; that you were a really strong Canadian patriot…
I’m proud of where I live and I love it here [in Austin] but at the same time I’m Canadian, born and proud of it. When they ask me to play the national anthem that’s something I take quite seriously. I was asked to do both anthems at the Maple Leafs game in Toronto a couple of weeks ago.
They wheeled a big old trainer amp out onto the ice and I cranked it up and played “O Canada” and people went nuts. And so they should.
And doing the American National anthem—how was that for you?
Really exhilarating. It’s such a hard song to sing. I make a lot of noise—I plug into a big amp and I can take care of myself. But when you’re standing there in front of a microphone in a spotlight in the middle of a hockey arena, you don’t have the big rock show behind you. You can’t hide behind the big hat, you’ve got to take it off. It’s a real challenge, and it was exhilarating to walk up to the mic and go “four three two one… (I hope I remember the words.)”
I wanted to ask you about a few Newfoundland connections you have: Ron Hynes is on your record for instance…
Yeah. I get invited to the ECMAs every year, and I move heaven and earth to get to wherever they are. Over the years I’ve run into so many amazing musicians—Ron Hynes especially. I just really hit it off with Ron. I love his music and I love his sense of poetry, his lyrics. He’s such a character. He’s such a kook.
I usually end up in the hotel lobby bar with Ron Hynes for way too much time when I’m supposed to be going to the industry seminars and stuff. That’s my seminar right there: Whisky 101. We tell dirty jokes, drink whisky, solve all the problems of the world, and drink to those departed. It’s really inspirational to hang out with a guy like that.
He told me this horrifying story this one night in a hotel room. He was trying to get me to have another drink with him and I was like, ‘oh I’ve got to stay on the wagon for this trip.’
He was like, “do you know the origin of that expression?”
“No, I don’t but I have the feeling you do.”
So he told me a story. Keep in mind this is in a dark hotel room at 4:30 in the morning on a bender… He told me that story and I was horrified and it stuck with me. I immediately went home and wrote “On the Wagon”. And I could not do justice to the story. So we got CBC radio to record Ron and send us the audio. And a real funny thing is when Ron told it to me it was really late at night and we were really tired and it was just a ghastly tale about a condemned man’s last pint. And of course when Ron walks into CBC at three in the afternoon in St. John’s Newfoundland, to talk about the expression falling off the wagon, he was talking so fast we couldn’t understand a word of it. And we were like, “oh that’s right, he’s a Newfoundlander in Newfoundland.” I’m in the studio in Texas and here’s everyone ‘walk slow, talk slow, it’s hot outside. You’ve got time to take your time.’ Ron gave me the full Newfoundland on that one tape. He was talking so fast I had to slow the tape down.
[Scroll down to read a transcription of the story.]
There’s another guy from Newfoundland you’ve been talking to lately: Chris Kirby.
Yeah, I think Chris and I are going to make a record this year. We’ve been talking. I plan to be seeing him when I get to town. I’ve been talking to The Novaks recently too. I’m an enormous fan of theirs. When I saw them about three years ago I was like ‘thank god, a real rock and roll band.’ I love Mick Davis’ guitar playing, the songs, the way the band plays together.
They look cooler than hell and they play great rock and roll.
It’s always funny to be walking around and run into them when they’re doing normal stuff. It’s such a small town and there are so many stars… Ron Hynes…
There you go. That’s the amazing thing about St. John’s and that’s an amazing place to live then, isn’t it. I think that’s fantastic.
It sounds like Austin from the way you’re describing it.
Yeah! It’s a lot like that.
Grady will perform in support of their latest release A Cup of Cold Poison during a stop in St. John’s at Club One on Sunday, April 20 at 9 p.m. Tickets available at the Sundance, Big Ben’s, by phone at 1-800-874-1669, or online at www.sonicconcerts.com Doors open at 8pm.
On the wagon
As told by Ron Hynes at the beginning of “On the Wagon” on Grady’s A Cup of Cold Poison:
This is a story that concerns the origin, or perhaps the legend of the expression “On the wagon.”
It seems that in turn of the century Ireland, when a condemned man had been sentenced to be hanged, that he would be led to his place of execution in a horse-drawn wagon. He stood in the wagon, and the hangman led the horse. They would stop at the local pub on the way to the place of execution, and the condemned man was permitted one last pint. And he would have his last pint before his death. The hangman stood next to him at the bar. With true human compassion, the bartender was required to say “can I give him another?” To which the hangman would reply, “no… he’s on the wagon.”