MICHAEL JOHNATHON – The Painter (PoetMan Records  PMR70030)

The PainterAn artist whose teenage comic strip was published in 17 newspapers, holed up in his Kentucky log cabin, Johnathon’s completed 49 oil paintings since the pandemic began and his CV also includes five published books, a play performed in 42 countries, a  traditional opera, a weekly radio and TV broadcast that reaches over 2 million listeners on 500+ radio stations and the organiser of SongFarmers, a national association of front porch musicians, The Painter is his 17th studio album, following on from last year’s Legacy.

That paid tribute to Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ and this turns its focus on ‘Vincent’, couched as a cycle about art, artists, love and life based around his prime influence as an artist, Van Gogh. As such it’s framed by the self-penned title track and McLean’s ‘Vincent (Starry Starry Night)’, the former intentionally musically and lyrically derivate of the latter. Both are even played on a Martin 00-21, the same as on the McLean original. Van Gogh is also the specific focus of the strummed ‘Vincent In The Rain’, which draws on his search for love in France for Johnathon’s own canvas of romance that, coloured by accordion, also references Michelangelo, Cézanne and Monet.

With its cascading fingerpicked folksy tune ‘Blues Tonight’ follows with a song about being on your own and feeling lonely but being okay with that, Sharon Ohler’s flute seeing it out before the second of the album’s four covers, a fine version of Harry Chapin’s ‘Cats In The Cradle’ that additionally benefits from hammered dulcimer. The two other covers are weighted at the end of the album with, first a warm and dreamy simple acoustic picked and piano accompanied version of Dylan’s ‘To Make You Feel My Love’ followed by a jauntily fingerpicked take on the evergreen ‘Blue Moon’, his voice again reminiscent of McLean.

Elsewhere the remaining numbers are all originals, ‘The Statement’ a call for love and peace and not hate framed by a resonant dark guitar, heavy piano, spare but dramatic percussion and flute, offset by the more tender companionship and ageing-themed ‘The Journey’, Ohler once more adding woodwind colours.

He breaks out the banjo to go with the piano tinkles for the light folksy backwoods gospel stomp beat ‘Sunday Morning’ and its restless spirit, troubles on my mind blues, the last of the self-penned being ‘Othello’, all fierce strum, piano runs and handclap rhythm drums, that takes Shakespeare’s theme of deception and applies it to the painter’s blank canvas in creating what was not previously there.

Johnathon was one of the 2020 recipients of a Milner Award, a Governor’s award presented to Kentuckians who have made a significant impact in the arts world, joining the likes of Jean Ritchie, Wendell E Berry and the late novelist James Still. This album suggests a few other honours wouldn’t go amiss.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.michaeljohnathon.com

‘Vincent’ – live (a while ago):