Originally from Kentucky, Dan Johnson began playing music as a teen, but put his dreams on hold to raise three daughters as a single father. With encouragement from his now grown children, Johnson set off to follow those dreams again in 2013 when he formed Dan Johnson and the Salt Cedar Rebels. Since then they have been gaining fans all over Texas where they have opened for Randy Rogers, played the Dallas Stars New Year’s Eve Bash and San Antonio’s ZiegenBock Festival. From the road during a long drive, Johnson kindly took the time to talk about his current single, “This Is How We Texas,” upcoming music and more.
Before we delve into the music, can you give us some background as to what spurred your love of music and why you returned to it after years away?
I grew up on a farm in Kentucky, right down the road from Hazzard, and many of the people working on the farm played an instrument. We didn’t have television most of the time, but we had music and that became a big part of my life. My Dad loved southern rock like Marshall Tucker and Lynyrd Skynyrd while my Mom loved Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles. And of course being in Kentucky I heard a lot of bluegrass and outlaw country. My Dad passed when I was ten and I didn’t pick up a guitar again until I heard “Tears In Heaven”, which just ripped my heart out. I needed to learn to play that on the guitar and no sooner did I do that than I got involved in music at school and then was out playing shows. At eighteen, I had a daughter and got married. My wife hated me playing music, so I put it away until my kids were grown [Johnson has three daughters]. My oldest daughter, as well as a girlfriend at the time, encouraged me to pick it back up again, so I put a band together [the Salt Cedar Rebels]. We played our first band show on September 22nd, 2013 and have been doing this ever since.
Your current single is “This Is How We Texas” which has the potential to be such an anthem. What's the story behind that song?
There’s actually a funny story behind the song. I met and dated a beautiful woman who was well traveled and educated, so I was trying to think how I was going to impress her. One night I took her to a barn dance where she asked me to teach her how to dance, but we got on the dance floor and turned out she was a professional dancer in Philadelphia! So I had nothing (laughing)! At the end of the show, the upright bass player lays the bass on it's side and Adam Inomn [formerly of Dix Hat Band] jumps on it to do a fiddle solo and the crowd goes nuts. So I was like, ‘This is my moment.’ I put my arm around her and just said: 'Baby, this is how we Texas.' It was the cheesiest line; I couldn’t believe how it came out of my mouth, but we fell in love and eventually she moved in. I told the band the story and they said, "Oh we have to write this song." Adam mentioned doing it like Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire” - really rapid-fire naming places and things in Texas. It wasn’t an easy song to write trying to make it rhyme and fit, but I came up with 70 different references.
Originally, we were never going to release it as a single. We were told singing songs about Texas in Texas was no different than bro-country in Nashville. My thought was that if you love a place and there’s a lot of great, cool stuff to talk about, why not sing about it? It’s ended up being the most popular song we do live and caught the attention of the Dallas Stars hockey team who had us play at their big NYE bash in Dallas.
And on March 14th, you released the video for the song which highlights many great aspects of the state.
We decided to pull the trigger and make a video with the amazingly talented Jacob Kuker [Kuker FIlms], who did our first video. I got in touch with the Texas Tourism office who gave us access to all of their video footage, so when you watch that video everything on it is from them. We got really lucky and are very grateful to them for letting us use it.
We’re not going to leave “This Is How We Texas” out here for long though. We’re going to release “Roll on River,” which is a big emotional song that we already shot the video for, in June or July. We’re also in pre-production for a song called “Hemingway." I mentioned my Dad passed when I was ten, but what I didn’t mention was that he was a veteran who had mental health issues and ended up taking his own life. I wrote “Hemingway,” a song about a soldier returning home after war, to raise awareness of veteran’s suicide. In addition to the song, an author in Texas, Travis Erwin, asked to write a short story around it, so our plan is to release that in conjunction with the song. There will be no commercial push behind it; we are planning to release it and any money that comes in will be donated to suicide prevention [an estimated 16-22 U.S. veterans take their own lives every day]. When I was a little kid I promised myself that if I had a public voice, I would use it for something important. This is the first chance I’ve had, so we’ll put it out there and hopefully, it will reach some folks.
That’s an incredibly noble thing to do.
In addition to those songs, do you have plans for new music?
We got asked to play the Midnight Rodeo, which is the largest venue in Amarillo, then got a call that had both bad and good news: Randy Rogers needed our date. I was cool with that because it’s Randy Rogers, but then there was the good news: they were letting us open for them. His band and crew were amazing to us and overall it was just a cool night and a good show. Later on, we found out someone recorded it. I knew that we were not going to be putting out new music for a while, so I came up with the crazy idea of putting out the bootleg. We spoke to the guys at The Midnight Rodeo who agreed to sponsor it and so in about two months we will be releasing six previously unreleased songs as a live bootleg. It will be available as a limited edition vinyl with a download card and I’m just stoked about it.
Last year was a pretty good year for you. Will 2016 promise to be even better?
I’m hoping! Send us your good vibes! Look, I’m 39 so if I don’t get this done fairly soon, no one is going to listen to me anymore. I’ve never worked as hard at anything in my life. From the moment I wake up until I crash at night, I am working on all aspects of the music. I know I’ll never be the best songwriter or musician, but I’m damn sure going to outwork everybody keeping my nose to the grindstone and busting my ass until I’m so exhausted I can’t speak anymore.
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