"Rotary" isn't a bad way to describe Johnson and his band, Centro-matic. With his gentle, southern-Missouri accent and a collection of songs connecting heart and land, Johnson is a throwback to a time when your front porch was the place to see and be seen, and moonshine was the pick of poisons. You can take a man out of Missouri but, in Johnson's case, you can't get him out of the Central time zone.
Centro-matic last toured in the fall of 2004 with another laurel-steeped band, the Drive-By Truckers. Along with Kings of Leon, the Truckers and bands such as Centro-matic enroll listeners in the school of country-inflected rock music once run by Whiskeytown, the Jayhawks and the Old 97's. The explosion of avant experimentation following the release of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot allowed purveyors of twang rock a more accepting ear, expanding interest in lo-fi, lyrically driven bands. Add to the equation a steadily increasing national obsession with the Austin, Texas, music scene, thanks in large part to the once-underground South by Southwest festival, and you are left with bands such as the Drams (formerly Slobberbone), Centro-matic and Johnson's side project, South San Gabriel and a near-rabid fanbase.
Centro-matic's shows, which are almost always in small venues, routinely sell out. Even though it's easy to want the best for the band, it's hard to accept that Centro-matic's popularity might increase to the point where it's forced into larger venues. The group's sound, though not small, is intimate. This is storytelling music, not arena rock.
"A lot of times, I just get up in the morning and start writing," Johnson says. "There's no real set process, and there shouldn't be, or you're thinking too much about the writing. And that kills the song."
Johnson's writing is the north wind that shifts his attention from band to band. Though he and his bandmates try not to get too academic about recording in a certain order, a kind of rotation has cropped up over the years: a Centro-matic release, then a solo record, then a South San Gabriel album.
This does not mean that Will John-son should be lumped in the too-prolific-for-their-own-good category with the Ryan Adamses and Ani DiFrancos of the music world.
"If you write a lot," he says, "there's gonna be some turds in there, too."
Will Johnson marinates the Centro-matic sound in his life, and, after a few drinks, it becomes clear that his life could just as easily be yours. A true southern Missourian, Johnson has his fair share of pints while on tour and thinks of his off-time as not just good for songwriting but also for resting his liver.
It's a shame that more of Johnson's humor doesn't come through in his songs, because it's clearly part of his personality and storytelling nature. This Centro-matic tale sums it up best:
"We were on the road," Johnson recalls, "and we overheard two drunks sitting outside the bar.
"'What time does the beer store close?' one asked.
"'Midnight,' replied the other.
"'What time is it now?'
"'We'll never make it.'"
True, they never did. But Centro-matic will. And if you ask Will Johnson, he'll say it already has.