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DRM JOHNSTON . . . INTERVIEW
Marie: Where are you originally from, and where are you based now?
DrmJ: I was born July 16th, 1952 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. A "steel town" with 3 rivers coming to a point. A "blue collar" city. Raised in Wilkinsburg and Monroeville, PA. Both are "suburbs" of Pittsburgh. I've traveled the USA a bit, and have lived for short periods of time in the cities of Ocean City, Maryland; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Madison, Wisconsin; North Hampton, Massachusetts; and Aurora, Colorado. Seems I've come full circle. Back where I started from, and content about it. Back in Monroeville.
Marie: From reading your articles, you were obviously a huge Beatles' fan.
DrmJ: Well, I'm not all that huge. But I was (and I still am) impressed with the music the Beatles cultivated and released during the early stages of their career. Say, 1964 to 1966. After that, I believe their music lost its magic. Also, my attention was captivated by the entire "British Musical Invasion" within America during that era, including such acts as the Dave Clark Five, the Searchers, the Zombies, and on and on.
All music seemed to be "special," during the mid-sixties. America was pumping out great Soul Music by the Supremes, etc.;Motown was cookin'. The USA lent quite a bit of talent to the world during that period, too. The Beach Boys, the Byrds. It was simply a worldwide "smelting pot" of great music. And the "Merseybeat" sound was pretty much at the forefront of it all, from my perspective then and now. As for the Country Music . . . well, George Jones, and Loretta Lynn were then in their prime. Yeah, the Beatles will always rate high on my scale of viable talent. But there was a lot more to it than that. Those few years were just an incredible phenomenon of surfacing musical talent. I doubt that will ever happen again, within our lifetime.
Marie: I understand you are a performer.
DrmJ: Well, there's all kinds of "understanding." No, I don't perform live. I'm a writer, and a songwriter. My focus, at one point, was to become the Snare Drum Percussionist for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. I used to practice up to 6 hours per day. But somehow I lost that interest, taught myself how to play guitar, and became engulfed within songwriting. I can't read a note of guitar sheet music. However, I read, write, and play snare drum music at its highest level.
Marie: Have you ever been part of a group?
DrmJ: Part of a group of what? Sure. "Garage Bands." Years ago. I guess the best one was the "Mockingbirds." Never played out . . . could have. A 4-piece band consisting of only 2 serious members is bound to fail. The talent was there, though. But the ambition was sorely lacking . . . but not on my part. Yes, I remember it now . . . I played drums, of course.
Marie: What sort of music do you specialize in?
DrmJ: The good kind. Mostly Country. Some Top 40/Pop. Some "Beatlesque." Surprised? Good music is good music. It's the quality that counts. I draw the line at misrepresentation. If it's Country . . . call it Country. If it's Top 40/Pop . . . call it Top 40/Pop. Neither is more "evil" nor "saintly" than the other, as long as the tunes are of quality. Quality without deception.
Marie: I know Karen Cruise is going to record one of your songs.
DrmJ: Ah, yes, . . . Karen. Now there's some talent I believe in. She's a Canadian singer/songwriter/performer. She's got 2 albums out already. "For Always," and "Strong Enough to Lean On." It's strange it's taken Europe to appreciate her talent on a vast plane. And it's also strange it's taken Canada to recognize my American talent. Things seem to be going that way, more every day. Why, you ask? I suppose it's Nashville's "strangulation" of true traditional Country Music which is forcing other countries to "pick up the ball, and run with it." Yes, Karen Cruise is going to release one of my titles on her upcoming 3rd CD within the year 2000. But if I have my way, she just might release 2 or 3 of my songs on that album. We'll see. Also, there are other music publishing deals in the offing, for me. Both foreign, and domestic.
Marie: Are your songs written from personal experiences (life in general) or do you just come up with inspiration "out of the blue?"
DrmJ: Out of the "blue" what? I don't consider myself a poet or a visionary. Both are "like" creatures. Most, but not all, of my compositions are arrived at through the negative aspects of living an ordinary, human life. Certain songs have only taken me 15 minutes or so to write. One title took me 10 years to complete. A lot of it . . . songwriting . . . is simply hard work. My mind's not out in the ozone layer somewhere believing it's a "mystical, musical guru's job to solve the problems of the world." I'm a melody-maker and a lyricist . . . that's all.
Marie: Which artists/acts have been your biggest musical influences?
DrmJ: I suppose just about everybody and anybody within music of all genre have taken their toll of influence within my style of songwriting. Every songwriter is influenced by every songwriter and artist preceding them. A few of my favorite artists and songwriters include Lennon/McCartney, Joni Mitchell, Dan Fogelberg, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Vern Gosdin, Buck Owens, Tammy Wynette, Emmylou Harris, the Desert Rose Band, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and Seldome Scene (a Bluegrass band), and, the Beatles. Just to name a few.
Marie: What, in your opinion, sets the USA apart from Britain, on the music scene? We have the talent but the media coverage over here is virtually nil. What is your perception of this?
DrmJ: Stigmata. It's an axiom, that the USA is in charge of Country Music. The Brits are "supposed" to be in charge of the Merseybeat sound. You guys are "Beatles" . . . we're the "Cowboys." I know this is absurd. But until you can change the views of the entire world . . . I don't know what else to say. Best find an audience within your own country before you try to conquer the remainder of civilization.
Marie: What would be your best advise to somebody over here, starting out in the business?
DrmJ: That's easy. Become the next "Beatles." Not by releasing Top 40/Pop and Rock 'n Roll, as the lads did . . . but by knocking America "off of its ear" with quality traditional (and modern-traditional) Country Music. This land is starving for such! It seems Nashville has closed its doors to anything other than its new "Hot-Pop-Junk" sound. Show them a thing or two. And don't whine about it. Just do it.
Marie: Again, from reading your articles, it is pretty obvious what you think of "Hot New Country." Having said this, there must be at least one "Star of Today" you admire. If so, who and why?
DrmJ: Yes, there are many. But not one of these "stars" are being aired on your typical USA FM radio station. The true "stars" are on independent labels . . . not the majors. The truly great talent is being squelched. It's not receiving airplay. Two prime examples are Vern Gosdin, and Chris Hillman. These 2 artists are today's stars . . . but they receive very little airplay and recognition.
Nashville seems to have gone insane, within its quest for youth, good looks, and material which appeals only to "teeny-boppers." Talent is no longer an issue, concerning commercial "Country Music." And besides, many of the "great" classic Country Music "giants" were just as greedy and self-contained as today's artists. Nepotism. Favoritism. Me, me, me . . . and mine. I have no respect, for that. Nostalgia only runs so deep, with me.
Marie: Do you have a trade, outside of the music business?
DrmJ: Writing. Photography. Communications. It's all "communications," isn't it?
Marie: Have you ever visited Britain, and seen "in the flesh" the talent we have on offer (I know you have heard some of our material)? If not, can you ever see yourself coming across the water with this purpose in mind?
DrmJ: I can't see myself coming across any expanse of water, unless it should be by boat, or by airplane. I can't simply appear. Yes, I suppose it's possible, given the proper form of transportation. I might appear on your shores one day to check out the "talent in the flesh" . . . women, preferably. Also, music.
Marie: If I asked you to pick just one artist as your favorite of all time, could you do so? If so, why did you single this person out, and what sets them apart from anyone else?
DrmJ: John Lennon. For many reasons. Yes, he was part and parcel of the Beatles . . . but that's not my reasoning behind my choice. First, Lennon was the Beatles. That's probably why the remaining 3 never got back together in a big way. They must also have known this. The man radiated talent. Lennon was a singer, a songwriter, a performer, a literary writer, and an artist of the "palette," as well as possessing quite a charming wit. He was also a comedian, in hindsight, and he was just as adept at intellectual situations, as he was within levity or musical endeavor. I believe, he was the best "melody-maker" ever to grace the planet. Throughout it all, he retained his charisma.
Marie: If you were on a desert island, what 3 things would be essential to take with you, and why?
DrmJ: A monkey, a female nymphomaniac, and a pair of earplugs. Monkeys can climb trees, and bring down bananas and coconuts . . . besides, they can be true friends. the nymphomaniac is self-explanatory. And the earplugs are for the times the female would be following me up and down the beach incessantly complaining about this or that. No guitar would be necessary, as if there's only one man and one woman . . . who needs to "croon?"
Marie: If it's not too personal a question, what are your family circumstances?
DrmJ: Married for 15 years. Divorced for 10 years. One father, one mother, one sister, one brother. No children. Quite happy, with it all. No changes necessary.
Marie: What is your most treasured possession, and why?
DrmJ: Now you are getting personal. But I'll assume you meant "what is my most-treasured material possession?" Not one thing in particular . . . there are several. My truck, "Regina" . . . my guitar, "Becky" . . . and my 1851 Navy Colt reproduction, "Rebecca Jean." I also like my boot collection . . . both "cowboy" and "Chelsea," and my collection of recordings . . . vinyls, CDs, cassettes, etc., . . . but I haven't christened those 2 items so I suppose they're less important to me.
Marie: Where do you see Country Music heading in, say, 10 years?
DrmJ: Out of the "toilet," hopefully. I'm speaking here of the crap which has been airing on many "major Country Music" radio stations within the USA for quite some time now. As I said before, you'll find some great Country Music on the independent labels today. Hopefully, that will still be the case within another decade. As for "major" labels finally seeing the light, and putting true Country Music back into Country Music . . . who knows? It could get better; it could get worse. Your guess is as good as mine. The audience gets what the audience wants, it seems. Maybe, if that record-buying, and concert-ticket-buying audience were to receive a "primer" concerning true Country Music, they'd force the "moneymakers" to provide real Country Music. Right now, the listening audience appears to be content with what it hears. Why? . . . I don't know.
Marie: What are your ambitions?
DrmJ: To disgrace my family lineage with failure. What kind of a question is this? If you have to ask me . . . why bother?
©1999 Marie Wilkinson
DRM JOHNSTON INTERVIEW
DRM Johnston (DrmJ) began his music journalism assignments with John Myles (editor of North Country Music magazine/Nottingham, England) during January 1998. His first "Letter From America" was printed within the February issue of that same year. The magazine was initially created to inform followers of Country & Western music within the midlands and the north of England, concerning club news, music releases, events, and performers on the local circuits. Having written for NCM since 1993, and having moved to the UK from the "States" in 1965, it interested me in what this newfound colleague and fellow countryman's contribution might consist of.
DrmJ's "reign" continued for the following 18 months. Besides his monthly "Letter From America" (a newsletter of sorts), DrmJ also contributed a Country Music News Segment, as well as offering feature articles concerning such artists as Emmylou Harris, Chris Hillman (formerly of The Byrds), Vern Gosdin, and Buck Owens.
DrmJ's work is always well-written, and his opinions on various aspects of the Country Music realm are often very controversial. Within NCM, DrmJ's articles became the ones you read and speculated upon, wondering what the consequential feedback might be from the British public. The feature articles written by DrmJ, for NCM magazine, delved deeply into the music history of his subjects. And, of course, his personal choice of singers, songwriters, and performers, as well as his choice of styles within Country Music were made evident within his "avant-garde messages."
His writings, within NCM's publication, possessed an air of arrogance and superiority, and such a display was sure to insight response from those possessing equally strong opinions different from his own. However, it also should have been clear to most of the reading audience, much of what DrmJ expounded upon was said "tongue-in-cheek."
This "dissension" was precisely what John Myles had anticipated from DrmJ, as he was well aware the growing monotony within NCM would be its downfall. DrmJ's contributions to NCM were always lively and informative . . . the opposite of the tedious, repetitive prose often appearing within the magazine. Although, DrmJ ceased writing for NCM within the latter half of 1999, I occasionally contact him, and vice versa. Through these infrequent communiques, I've discovered DrmJ's potential as a Country Music songwriter. He has been amiable enough to allow me to interview him here. Individuals interested in traditional, progressive, and/or contemporary Country Music might find this interview enlightening as well as finding it entertaining.
Susette: DrmJ, what formal education in the literary and musical fields have you had?
DrmJ: Sorry, I'm laughing . . . but I flunked 12th grade English class because all I wanted to do was to lay my head on the desktop and sleep. It wa an early class. So the teacher assigned me a desk at the back of the room, and she advised me to sleep there throughout each English class. So I did just that. She also informed me I'd be receiving straight F's throughout the school year. Back then, I didn't care . . . but everything has its price. So after my senior year, I had to go back to high school for half a day for another year . . . but that time I had to stay awake.
Never attended college. Haven't enrolled in writing classes. My talents within writing and songwriting must simply be God-given gifts. I'm a self-taught guitar player. However, I have the equivalent of 4 years professional instruction within the field of percussion. I read, write, and play snare drum scores at their highest level. I guess, that gave me a strong, solid foundation to use within the craft of songwriting.
Susette: Have you always worked within the literary and musical professions, or have you tried working within other vocations?
DrmJ: I've been writing songs for about 20 years but I've always found it necessary to make certain of other incoming income. The literary writing I've done was just part of that. It really wasn't what I wanted to do . . . it was just required, to make a few bucks to further my songwriting endeavors. But, yeah, . . . I've had lots of jobs. Construction, laborer, car wash attendant, machine shop worker, landscaper, dishwasher, carpet warehouse worker, carpet installer, asphalt paving worker, and beer distributor delivery driver, to name a few. I hated all of those jobs . . . each and every one of them. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with those positions . . . they just weren't for me.
Susette: How was contact first made between you and John Myles (North Country Music), and how was the subject of you contributing to the magazine first broached?
DrmJ: I'd been having some fun bantering back and forth on an internet newsgroup whose topic was Country Music. John noticed my "brash" way of verbally displaying my thoughts concerning Country Music. He e-mailed me, and offered me a writing opportunity at NCM. I accepted. That would become "Letter from America." From there, it just took off. I enjoyed my stint there . . . it was nice connecting to an international audience. However, I was forced to resign when it became apparent an American point-of-view was no longer of interest to either the reading audience or the publishers of the magazine. I still don't know whose decision it was to delete my input. Oh, well. I no longer write there.
Susette: Have you had any literary work published prior to your articles within NCM? What else have you written within the literary field?
DrmJ: Well, I have a book published within the field of herpetology. And many published articles concerning ichthyology. Hardly what you'd expect from a Country Music journalist or a songwriter. But I suppose those earlier writings helped me to hone my craft a bit. I haven't written about zoology or animal biology in years, and I don't expect to be doing that again anytime soon . . . but who knows.
I've also had over a dozen photographs published . . . animal "stills." My unpublished works include a screenplay, a short story, a collection of satire "shorts," and some cartoon work. My non-fiction work seems to be more well-received than my works of fiction . . . but I suppose that's true concerning many writers.
Susette: Your songwriting seems to be coming to the front. I hear Karen Cruise, from Canada, is including 3 of your compositions on her upcoming CD. How has this occurred?
DrmJ: Once again, as with John Myles and NCM, the internet was somewhat responsible. I'd been contributing a monthly article to the Country Music-oriented Saradon website (UK), when I was e-mailed by Karen Cruise, of British Columbia, concerning a manuscript of mine which had been published there.
The topic of the article was the importance of good songwriters, and how artists shouldn't shun them just to ensure all of the material within their projects are written solely by themselves . . . that's an "ego trip" taken too frequently by major and minor performers. So Karen asked me to send her a demo. I did. I think I sent her 3 or 4 demos, altogether. It just "clicked." Now she'll be including 3 of my songs on her soon-to-be-released 3rd album. Karen is an excellent songwriter, and up until now she's used only her own compositions within her album projects. But she chose me . . . a songwriter from "MONROEville," Pennsylvania . . . not from "NASHville," Tennessee, although she had both options and more. So, like I said, she chose me . . . and I chose her. And I believe this combination is going to work out in a big way.
Susette: Can you tell me anything about the songs being recorded? For example, the musicians Karen Cruise is using for the recordings?
DrmJ: The album was recorded at Woodside Studios (Bob Wood). Oklahoma City, USA. The mastering was done by Jim Falzone at Venus Mastering in Nashville. With that kind of input, the production should be great. Tommy Allsup produced and arranged the album, as well as adding his acoustic guitar talents throughout the project. Tommy played guitar with Buddy Holly & The Crickets at the same time Waylon Jennings was playing bass for Buddy. Everyone knows Waylon Jennings gave up his seat on that ill-fated plane to the Big Bopper. But at the same time Tommy Allsup gave up his seat on that same plane ride to Ritchie Valens.
Byron Berline put down the fiddle tracks. Byron's talent is incredible. He's played fiddle for the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Byrds, and Emmylou Harris, just to name a few. Steve Short did the drum work . . . he's played for Reba McEntire. Gary Carpenter on steel guitar. Victor Rook . . . bass. Dennis Borychi played keyboard. And Terry Scarberry did the lead guitar work. There's quite a bit of talent wrapped up within this project.
As for genre? . . . the album is mostly a mix of Traditional Country, Modern Traditional Country, and New Country. However, there's one song they couldn't quite classify . . . one of my songs . . . "Chain of Blues." They put it in "a class of its own" category. That makes me grin.
Susette: When did you decide you wanted to become a songwriter, and why?
DrmJ: My original goal was to become a snare drum player for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. I used to practice up to 6 hours a day. But then I taught myself to play guitar. I really liked the melodies which could be created, and I found I had a penchant for writing lyrics . . . so I switched dreams "in the middle of the stream." And that was that.
Susette: Which individual, or band, do you think has influenced your musical flare the most? And why?
DrmJ: Which individual? . . . that's easy. John Lennon. I think the band should have been named "John Lennon & The Beatles," as from my point of view John was the issue. Bands? A lot. The "British Invasion" music between 1964 and 1965 has always had a strong influence on my songwriting. You can't touch songs like "She's Not There" by the Zombies or "Time Is On My Side" by the Rolling Stones. Even the later British influence from Badfinger's "Baby Blue" shows genuine musical genius to me.
Then there's Buddy Holly & The Crickets, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, not to mention Vern Gosdin, Buck Owens, and Hank Williams. All of the above. And more. I try not to stagnate within any given "standard" genre. I guess that pretty much explains why my song, "Chain of Blues" can't be defined within a certain classification. At best, I suppose it might be categorized as "Brit-Influenced-American Country-Top 40 Pop" . . . a "genre" which seems to be exclusive to my way of songwriting.
Susette: How easy, or indeed, how difficult do you find it, when composing a song?
DrmJ: It's usually not difficult at all, for me. I guess, I've written a few songs, both music and lyrics, within about 15 minutes. Those can sometimes be the best songs you'll write all year. On the other side of the coin, however, one song, "Outlaw Trail," took me 10 years to complete. It was the first song I'd ever attempted to write . . . it just plagued me for 10 years. That's not usual, for me. As for "writers' block" . . . I don't believe in it. Songwriting is a job, just like every other job . . . you either do it, or you don't. Sitting around, waiting for "inspiration" is ridiculous. Songwriting is a craft . . . you have to work at it.
Susette: Tell me, DrmJ, what drives or stimulates your songwriting abilities? Do you find personal events inspire your songwriting talents, or are there other triggers which arouse your need to put pen to paper?
DrmJ: It's very personal. At least, most of it is. Some of my compositions have been written for nobody nor anything . . . but most of my songs reflect relationships I've had with women. They're mostly "love songs" . . . or, perhaps more aptly put, "lost-love songs" . . . both, really. The best compliment I've ever received concerning my songwriting came from a woman in England. She was reported to have said, "His music is really good but if you listen to it for too long you might end up hanging yourself." To me, that's a compliment!
Susette: Do you have any current songwriting or literary projects underway, and if so what are they?
DrmJ: Well, I've told you of the Karen Cruise project. On the literary side . . . I'm writing an interview concerning Dr. Cindee Gardner . . . a homeopathic practitioner. I write about whatever interests me . . . it doesn't necessarily have to "inspire" me. From lizards to fish to homeopathic medical practices . . . to music. It's all the same to me. In one form or another . . . it's all about writing.
Since writing this interview, I've had the opportunity of hearing many of DrmJ's songwriting compositions. A talented man, he has played every instrument within the demos he's sent to me . . . the vocals were also his own. He's a gifted individual, and I'm looking forward to the release of Karen Cruise's new release with eager anticipation.
The name DRM Johnston may well be one to look out for in the future . . . in both the literary and musical fields. Check your internet for his upcoming website . . . named, of course, DrmJ. I'm certain he'll have something to say.
©2000 Susette Swanson, DRM Johnston