by Angela K. Durden
Forget that people say Matt Evan Johnson is a modern-day Hank Williams, Sr. Never mind they say he’s the next Merle Haggard. Put it out of your mind that he’s been called a Country Dire Straits. Because such comparisons do not matter when it comes to the power of the lyrics this man from Lake Blackshear, Georgia, puts into song.
I interviewed Matt one Saturday afternoon in May. He was just coming off the road — and I don’t mean off a performance tour. I mean he’s a long-haul truck driver and he was somewhere in the middle of the U.S. resting up, and waiting for his next load. At least, driving a truck is his current profession. As he writes in “If I Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix Me” —
I’m a hard-working man, yes, I am.
I’ve worked long and hard to become who I am.
I know how to play, and I know how to pray.
I thank the Lord every day.
You see, like many do when they are very young, Matt knew where his heart lay but he got diverted. From an early age, his mother knew her son was musical — like her. Mom played the piano and sang. His father was a career Marine who retired with the rank of Major General; Dad did not understand music or creativity.
As much as Matt loved music — he loved all kinds — and was in a successful regional band during his early years, Dad had other plans for him.
“My Dad was a great man. I loved him,” Matt said. “He wanted me to go into the Marines like him, or at least some branch of the armed services. But…”
Yeah, the but-but-buts will get you and Matt’s plans were laid for him by his father. Dad was paying for college, so Dad chose what Matt would do. And because Dad was a good man, Matt honored his father. After college, he went into the insurance industry where he did quite well for a good many years.
But then the world changed…
Along came the Internet and people could shop, compare, and apply for insurance without having to talk to a live person. Matt was only one of thousands who slowly lost their jobs. Eventually, he lost everything, and was destitute and homeless for ten years working temporary jobs here and there. He was once a repo man. Finally, he got a job trucking and things were looking up.
Then he had to quit. His parents were now old, and they needed caring for. Like a good son will do, Matt put his life on hold to care for his parents. To manage the stress of not being able to earn a living while devoting all his time managing the needs of his loving parents’ last few years, he surrounded himself with music. Five long years he was with them until they passed. Dad first. Then Mom.
Now it was time for Matt to reimagine his life. He would no longer relegate music to last place, that was certain. But he recognized the sacrifices he had made and wondered what place music would hold. After all, from “If I Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix Me” —
So, if I ain’t broke, don’t fix me.
I’ve paid a high, high price to be who I am.
But then again…
Money had to be made, so Matt Evan Johnson went back into trucking. Sitting behind a wheel day after day, dodging distracted bumper stickers and watching never-ending lollipops slide by, Matt gave more thought to his life.
He took a guitar along for company and spent his evenings learning covers of his favorite songs. Then driving down the road one day, listening to his beloved music, bits and snatches of chords and melodies and lyrics unwritten came to him. At night, when the truck wasn’t rolling, Matt began writing his songs.
“I was finding my voice. I was telling my story.” Matt sighed, “Yeah. I was finding myself.”
He finds he writes better songs while he is working and actively involved in life. Instead of writing full-time, he finds stories to write about as he goes across the country. Songs such as “Honky-Tonk Tonkin’” when he writes about the night he needed to get out and cut loose —
So I’m Honky-Tonk Tonkin’
’cause the Honky Tonk’s tonkin’ to me.
I need some old friends
and some company.”
And from “Don’t Complain” —
Tomorrow’s going to get here soon enough
So, tonight it’s Honey, Honey hush.
Just hold me close so we can make love,
and tomorrow I’ll release you like a dove.
When he got tired of folks doing nothing but complaining, also from the song above, he wrote —
So tonight, don’t complain, don’t complain.
I’ve heard enough of the talk and the pain.
Tomorrow’s going to get here just the same
So tonight, don’t complain. Don’t complain.
Matt started to perform at open mic nights and folks were liking what they heard. Listeners could relate on a visceral level to being lost when he sang “Do I go north south east or west? I really don’t know which way is best.”
To a commentary on his life’s journey with “I’ve paid a high price to be who I am.”
To his relationship with His Savior as he sings “When you surrender your losing game… He’ll provide the answers that are right for you” and “He drugged me out of the water as He spoke to me. He drugged me out of the water and said, ‘You follow me.’”
For me, though, the two songs that best sum the man, are, “Walk the Walk” —
When you going to stop chasing what ain’t true?
When you going to stop hustling to get you through?
When you going to stop telling lies and tell the truth?
When you going to find the truth inside you?
and “Lucky Man” —
And when I get down, you get me up.
And when I get up, you get me down.
And when I get bent, you drive me crazy.
With a few good friends, I’m a lucky man
Yeah, I’m a lucky man.
I got a few good friends and a country band.
I read the Good Book every now and then,
and thank God for you, I’m a lucky man, yes, I am!
There’s more coming from Matt Evan Johnson. And aren’t we all lucky to be waiting to see what that will be?
Producer, Wurlitzer Piano, Hammond B3, Moog, Telecaster, BG Vocals.
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