Jeremiah Johnson, acclaimed St. Louis blues rocker, is readying the release of his sophomore set Heavens to Betsy, due out via Ruf Records on February 14th. The St. Louis bandleader is a beacon of time-honored songcraft, writing on acoustic guitar, digging deep for raw lyrics and insisting on studio production that bottles the sweat of his shows.
Heavens To Betsy is another bold creative leap for an artist on fire. It’s been just two years since Straitjacket hit #6 on the Billboard Blues Album chart and scored rave reviews across the board. This was the follow-up to Grind (2014), Blues Heart Attack (2016), as well as the confessional Ride The Blues documentary.
But while Johnson is rightly proud of that early catalogue – and still serves up house-rocking takes on the Straitjacket material each night – he’s always kept one eye on the horizon. “On Heavens To Betsy, I wanted to try something different than any of my previous releases. I really took the ‘song first’ concept and got back to my roots in blues-based Southern rock.”
The specter of the US South can be felt in every fiery lick and observational lyric. Yet Heavens To Betsy is no exercise in autopilot roadhouse blues. The raging sax of Frank Bauer, either backing up or butting heads with Johnson’s driving guitar, has always given the band an added dimension, and with the addition of former Devon Allman percussionist Tony Antonelli, the groove goes all over the map. “We have a more tribal, rhythmic feel now,” notes Johnson, “like the Black Crowes and the Allman Brothers.”
Confident that his band could handle whatever he threw at them in Memphis’s High/Low Recording studio, the new album represents Johnson’s best writing yet. Try “White Lightning”, the lyric penned from the perspective of a struggling Southern farmer, powered by money-lick sax and wah pedal. Try the doubled licks of “Tornado”, its lyric saluting a wildcat lover; “She’s a hot cup of coffee on a bumpy road.” Or put your foot down with the hard-driving “Castles In The Air” and “American Steel”, a salute to the joy of the US freeway.
Nobody does escapism better, but Johnson stands apart with his eloquence on more poignant topics. “Leo Stone is about the overwhelming joy I had while my fiancée was in the final stages of her pregnancy,” he says of this open-hearted, country-flavoured highlight, named for his new-born son. “Long Way Home is about my grandmother, who suffered terribly from dementia, and the story of the last time she remembered who I was. “Forever And A Day” was written while I was away from my family on a European tour. Sometimes it can seem like an eternity.”
Like all the best records, Heavens To Betsy didn’t come easy. Johnson tells of long days under producer Pete Matthews (Vandoliers, North Mississippi Allstars, John Moreland), sometimes catching the spark in the first take, sometimes at the end of a twelve-hour day. “Recording this record was absolutely the most intense experience I’ve ever had in a studio. Good enough was not an option. But I’m extremely thankful that Pete pushed everyone to get the best out of every performance.”
These songs deserved nothing less. On Heavens To Betsy, Jeremiah Johnson has delivered on his mission statement – and then some – with a record that demands to soundtrack the moments of life that matter. “I want this record to be something you’ll want to crank up when you’re with your friends and celebrating life,” he considers. “I want people to throw this record in the stereo and get a kick in the ass…”