Americana is a fuzzy concept, and no one agrees on exactly what it includes. There is agreement that it includes at least some of the blues, but I’ve never heard a good explanation of exactly what part. Those boundary issues are irrelevant to the consideration of Jeremiah Johnson’s Straitjacket (Ruf Records, produced by Mike Zito), which, with its stylistic forays into rock and country, absolutely qualifies. Johnson opens the second track, “Getting Tired,” with a sweet rock n’ roll guitar riff reminiscent of Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner. “Keep on Sailing,” two tracks later, is an infectious rockabilly number with fantastic work by Johnson’s sax player, Frank Bauer, and boogying piano accompaniment by Lewis Stephens.
While Johnson’s musical style is expansive, he is still, unmistakably, a bluesman. Even when he plays a rockabilly song, he howls his vocals, and boy, can he howl. Singing the blues calls for a distinct vocal technique, and Johnson has it down. It helps that his lyrics seem to effortlessly fit the particular rhythms of the blues, even reading them on the page. Take these two lines from “Believe in America:” “I’ve seen people on the corner, they ain’t got a damn dime / I’ve seen people driving down the road, they ain’t got a care, they ain’t got a damn mind.”
Johnson’s lyrics are direct, and they fit the music well. The lyrics may not contain a lot of subtlety or ambiguity, but they do trade on what is unspoken. The populist language of “Believe in America,” deliberately devoid of partisan message, tempts the listener to speculate about Johnson’s deeper intentions, even if he’s “not trying to make a political statement.” Johnny Cash, I would note, spoke the people’s lives without ever tying his message to party or movement.
Straitjacket is just plain fun. It’s a rollicking trip down the Mississippi to the Gateway to the West, and it’s a trip you should take. Pick up Straitjacket, and experience Jeremiah Johnson’s slice of St. Louis blues for yourself. You’ll be glad you did. Get your copy here: https://jeremiahjohnsonband.com/