SOPHIA JOHNSON – One Year (own label)

One YearWhen I reviewed Hannah Johnson’s solo debut a few months back, I was unaware that her sister, Sophia, had also released her debut back in 2016, with One Year getting an international release in 2017. Both were, of course, two thirds of Birmingham-based bluegrass outfit The Toy Hearts along with their lap steel player father Stewart, until Sophia upped sticks in 2015 to move to Austin, resulting in Hannah renaming the band The Broken Hearts.

Although she initially made her name with gypsy jazz guitar instrumental outfit Trio Gitano, Sophia shares her sister’s love of old school country and Western Swing, particular touchstones being Ray Price, Patsy Cline and Bob Wills, something very evident in their respective albums, both in their choice of covers and their own material. It’s the latter that dominates on Sophia’s fine collection, several of the songs clearly having an autobiographical slant, kicking off with ‘Visa Blues’, a sprightly swing number that might have come from the Prairie Home Companion stage as, backed by fiddle and some fine guitar picking, she tells the immigration authorities “I’m a guitar player and I come from Birmingham, I left everyone I love and everything I own to chase a dream in Texas, make Austin my home.”

Although it’s water under the bridge now, Sophia having co-produced and played on Hannah’s album, the split clearly caused some friction and, if you know the background, then it’s hard not to read into the lyrics of the jazzy, clarinet-flavoured title track, a pertinent reference to the time that had passed and lines like “it don’t feel much like a victory when the winning costs so much” and how “it’s a year since we have spoke”. However, for those not privy to the conscious or otherwise personal references, it works just as well as a relationship break up number, the experience informing though not necessarily defining the songs, as for example the reflective slow sway ballad, ‘Starting Fires’ where, to plangent guitar chords, Beth Christman’s fiddle and Earl Poole Ball’s piano (not to mention a vague echo of Richard Thompson), she sings about cutting ties and burning bridges.

Indeed, there’s a clutch of collapsed relationship numbers, the five and a half minute ‘Don’t Call’, a lolloping, burping bluesy organ groove courtesy of Kullen Fuchs with hints of the Sir Douglas Quintet and about avoiding contact so as not to feel even more down and, by contrast, the catchy brushed drums and hot club fiddle shuffling swing of the sweetly sung but defiant ‘Rue The Day’ that conjures the vintage days of the Grand Ole’ Opry.

The last of the self-penned numbers is ‘Kitchen Floor’, a twangsome bluegrassy number about drinking away the loneliness served with a cocktail of Jackson, Parton and Cash and a guitars and fiddle instrumental break. Of the four covers, first up is a playful Westerns wing sashay through Silas Lowe’s ‘I’m Moving To Manchaca’ while the penultimate cut reprises Ben Saffer’s clarinet on the Johnny Mercer’s prairie swing ‘I’m An Old Cowhand’. Showcasing both Johnson’s terrific acoustic and electric guitar playing as well as the classiness of the other musicians, who also include Tom Lewis on drums, Bryce Clarke on electric guitar, bassist Huck Johnson and fiddle player Katy Cox, the other two are both instrumentals, Bob Wills’ Western Swing romp ‘Big Beaver’ and, closing the album, Johnson and Cox’s big grin arrangement of the traditional ‘Beaumont Rag’.

As well as making a name for herself on the Austin scene as both an artist in her own right and as an in demand guitar player, as well as forming a musical partnership with Rosie Flores, Johnson’s also been nominated for best Western Swing Female in the fifth annual Ameripolitan Music Awards founded “to benefit and acknowledge artists whose work does not readily conform to the tastes of today’s “country” or other music genres and organizations.” The Toy Hearts may beat no more, but in giving birth to two new solo swing sensations, the Johnson sisters are proving a musical defibrillator for old school country on both sides of the Atlantic.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘I’m Moving To Manchaca’ – official video:

HANNAH JOHNSON– Shaken (Woodville)

ShakenPhysically based in Kings Heath, Birmingham but with her spiritual and musical homes shared between Nashville and Austin, Johnson was formerly one–third of Western Swing and bluegrass trio The Toy Hearts. But then, a couple of years back, guitarist and fellow vocalist sister Sophia decide to move to Austin, initially putting the band on hiatus and, eventually, seeing her form Hannah Johnson and The Broken Hearts, with father Stewart still on lap steel.

The band name’s now been dropped to make this Johnson’s solo debut, recorded in Austin with dad, resident bassist Chris Shirley and a clutch of solid session musicians, but also, indicating that whatever family rift may have occurred things is now in the past, with Sophia co-producing and featured on acoustic guitar.

Rooted in the old country, the blues and honky tonk of the Ameripolitan sound, there’s no huge musical departure from former days, the album comprising three original songs and eight covers from some of the genre’s greats. It’s one of Hannah’s that gets things rolling with the chugging Telecaster founded ‘Nowhere Train’, an early example of how she can switch from a silky purr to a gravel growl in the same line. ‘Morning Cocktail’ is another original, a slow waltzing, steel weeping number about drowning the hurt of a destructive relationship in rather too much alcohol that comes with a dreamily reflective guitar bridge.

The first cover comes from the Willie Nelson catalogue with a sultry swing and shuffle through ‘Three Days’, then it’s back to her remaining original, a co-write with Sarah Sharp on the fingerclicking sassy laid back 40s Andrews Sisters meets Patsy Cline swing of the playful ‘Your Girlfriend Hates Me’ with Emily Gimble on piano.

From hereon in, it’s an easy rolling journey through well chosen covers, headed up by Skeets McDonald’s honky tonker ‘Gotta Get You From That Crowd’ about a lover who spends a little too much time raising a glass with his friends. Next up, and again highlighting that growl, she transforms jazz pianist Richard M. Jones much covered (from Aretha and Nina to Led Zep and Johnny Cash) eight-bar blues ‘Trouble In Mind’ into slinky Western Swing.

Referring to Alabama rather than her hometown, ‘Not In Birmingham’ gently slides through the Roger Miller number with brushed drums and twangsome guitar, picking up the Western Swing banner again for a sweetly sung ‘Sooner or Later’ by Bob Wills before dipping into rock n roll tinged, fiddle-flavoured old time country with ‘Never No More’ and another potent guitar solo.

She brings the show to a close with a couple of contrasting numbers; first, a gentle home on the range sway through Gwil Owen’s ‘West Texas Lullaby’, taken at a just slightly faster tempo than the version popularised by Toni Price, and then breaking out Bryce Clarke’s acoustic mandolin for the scratchy goodtime jellyroll flapper flurry of ‘Shake It & Break It’ by “Father of the Delta Blues” Charlie Patton.

A dynamic live performer too, Johnson proved her authenticity chops long ago with the Toy Hearts, but this serves as a terrific launch of what promises to be an equally illustrious and acclaimed solo career.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website:

‘Not In Birmingham’ – live: