Championed by Oberlin Conservatory and Juilliard School-educated Founder Linda Weise, the Colorado Springs Conservatory attracts and retains the nation’s finest arts educators. We have a deep and abiding respect for our faculty mentors and guest artists/lecturers who share with our students a gift for teaching and a deep passion for the arts. Our teaching method is student-centric, offering a balance of peer-coaching, teacher mentoring, and performance.
This month, we’d like to shine our spotlight on Joe Johnson – Program Mentor · Composition & Songwriting | National Touring and Recording Artist
Joe, thank you for sharing a bit about your passion for singing and songwriting, your professional career as a recording artist and your journey as a mentor at Colorado Springs Conservatory!
Joe, you were born and raised in Mississippi, about an hour outside of New Orleans! Did that proximity to NOLA influence your passion for music?
Absolutely! It’s hard to adequately describe the influence that being in an area of the country which has its identity is so indelibly linked to American music culture can have on a creative person. From music to poetry to visual art, all creators who come from the South carry that influence with them. We each exhibit that influence to varying degrees, but it’s like a tattoo on the soul. It’s hard not to feel an overwhelming passion for music growing up in that kind of environment, especially for someone inclined to create it. It’s almost every Southerner’s favorite thing to be known for, we make music!
Were you raised in a musical household/family?
Yes. My family is steeped in Gospel and Country music. My paternal Grandfather, B.J. “The DJ” Johnson, was a member and performer at The Grand Ole Opry for many years, as well as a regular featured performer on The Louisiana Hayride radio show. His release catalogue spans over 40 years with early music coming out in the 50s and his last coming out in the mid 90s. While not as well known as many of his contemporaries, he certainly etched his name on the bedrock of Nashville. After his touring days he focused all his attention on his other jobs, which turned out to be his real life’s work, as a recording engineer producing many renowned country artists releases and as a radio disc jockey. He is now in the National Radio Hall of Fame.
My maternal Grandfather was also a disc jockey after stints in the Air Force and NASA where he worked in communications while helping us get to the Moon and back. After retirement he worked in radio and public television, helping found Mississippi ETV, as well as leading music at his church where my grandma played piano.
My grandma was an old time Gospel player who never realized she was actually playing honky tonk rock and roll. She, in turn, taught my Mother to play.
Mom was the one who taught me the love of music I have today. She is the single greatest influence on my career. She and Father, who played drums and bass, as well as sang and directed church music, met in a recording studio (engineered by BJ). My Aunt Becky appears on many of the albums BJ produced, sometimes singing multiple parts.
My sister was a stage performer and my cousin is a singer and hip hop artist. Those are just the ones I knew growing up. My great grandparents on back were entertainers and singers.
Both my children are beginning their musical journeys here at CSC, so the tradition continues.
Did you study music as a child/adolescent? Were you self-taught? Or who mentored you in your music?
As a child I was mostly taught to sing by my Mother and my Aunt, and we would often harmonize around the piano together. My father passed away when I was a baby and there was always a feeling that I should honor him, as well as the aforementioned family members, and pursue some sort of musical endeavors.
As an adolescent I played trombone in my school band and performed in school and church choirs, receiving instruction from some of the most talented musical minds a person could ever hope to find like Ronnie and Loucinda Herrington and Carol Jean Meyers. I learned to perform through four plus years in school and community theater under the tutelage of Connie MaKay Wood. She had a deeply profound impact on me as a performer, really helping me understand how to capture an audience from the first row to the back wall. My friendship with her extends even to today, and I often hear from her.
After high school I did a brief stay in college (where I was told I would “never amount to anything, musically”) before going full time as a performer and vocalist in several southern touring rock bands.
In 2000 I moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, at which point I began really honing my skills as a writer and guitar player. During that time I learned a lot from a friend and writer by the name of Phillip Graves who taught me the basic chords on a guitar so I could join in a songwriters circle that several of us were doing weekly. Soon after that, I met Mississippi songwriting legend Cary Hudson and was fortunate enough to become friends with him and learn a great deal about how it’s done. The time from the late 90s to early 2000s was a mix of self instruction and helpful tips from friends who had more experience than me.
Which instruments do you play? Which is/are your favorite(s) and why?
I mainly play guitar, acoustic or electric depending on the song, the crowd, or the mood. I have played trombone in the past and can make a few chords on banjo and mandolin though I wouldn’t call myself a player of either. I really enjoy playing and writing on a four string cigar box guitar, which I picked up a few years ago. It really makes you simplify what you are doing and that’s probably a good thing for me. I also play some slide guitar and harmonica. I was taught the open tuning slide style by Cary, local blues master Grant Sabin, and legend of Mississippi Hill Country Blues Kenny Brown, who’s heritage of teachers can be quickly traced back to Robert Johnson. Of all these, my favorite is still finger picking on a six string guitar.
At what age did you begin writing music? Does writing come naturally to you or do you have to work at it?
I began creative writing while still in elementary school, poetry as well as making comic strips with my friend through middle school before moving on to write short (very short) stories in high school. I continued poetry writing for years before writing my first song around the age of 18. It was a simple Gospel song. After high school I was the vocalist and writer in a rock band so those were the first fully thought through songs I wrote, having melodies and hooks in mind. I would say there is certain degree of natural proclivity I have towards writing but there is absolutely no doubt that years of working at it made me a real songwriter. You always start with very simple concepts and ideas then as you grow those ideas and concepts hopefully grow along with you.
When did you move to Colorado, and what prompted that decision?
I moved here in the Summer of 2003. I only stopped through to visit my brother who lived in Manitou Springs at the time. However, the mountains called me home because when I first laid eyes on Pikes Peak. I knew I had found a place to stay and grow. Before that moment I had only been to the Smokey Mountains and the Appalachians as far as West Virginia. While that is a stunning part of the country, nothing to that point in my life stood so impressive as that big gorgeous lump of stone on the earth. I had experienced the loss of a dear friend and I was struggling to find my unique identity among the limitless talent in South Mississippi so I felt a change needed to happen. I was fortunate that two dear friends were gearing up to travel to the West and the night before they left they offered to bring me along. I knew they were coming back but I suspected I wasn’t. I went to work that night at the service station where I worked the graveyard shift. I got off at 6am, walked home and packed a backpack that would fit in the limited space available in the car. They showed up an hour later and I strapped my sleeping bag and tent to the back, tied a pair of boots to the bumper, and sat my guitar on my lap the whole way here. I will never forget the feeling as I watched the mile markers go by and the city limit sign disappear into the rearview. Every person should have at least one great adventure and that was the first in a series that continues to this day.
What are your hopes/visions for the future of the Colorado Springs music and arts scene?
I often hope that the people of Colorado Springs understand and appreciate the extremely rich musical heritage here. Our identity as a community is intertwined with the military and USOC, and those are wonderful things we are known for, but the musical ability in this city and its surrounding area is a resource not often immediately associated with the Springs.
As a person who has traveled the country many times over, I can say that our area is blessed to hold some of the most talented music makers anywhere. As the years go by, that community within the community grows stronger and larger by the day. When I moved here there were a few great original artists, but it was largely a “cover band” scene. I have been a part of, as well as witnessed, that scene’s transformation into one of original music and ideas. Along with that growth has, albeit slowly, come the addition of more and more venues welcoming original content. Neither of those things would be possible without support of a fanbase of people who enjoy hearing something new. While it may only represent a small portion of the overall population, the concert going fans of the Springs love to hear songwriting and the people who do it.
I believe that as the city grows into the future, it’s artist community will continue to grow along with it. I see a great potential with so many new venues for our city to be a place musicians want to come for years and years, as long as the city continues to grow in its understanding and support of the arts.
When did you become a mentor at Colorado Springs Conservatory? Have you always been a composition/songwriting mentor at CSC (or have you mentored in other areas, as well?)
This is my third year at Colorado Springs Conservatory. I began in the fall of 2019, after an extensive three months-long album release tour that summer. Linda (CSC Founder Linda Weise) knew of my desire to slow my touring schedule down and spend more time with my family, so she offered me a chance to do that while still working in the profession I have practiced for so long.
I was extremely intimidated by the prospect of teaching/mentoring young songwriters, but the staff made me feel right at home and helped me through the sometimes awkward transition I was making. I had never done anything like this before, but as soon as I began meeting and working with the kids, I found myself taking to it very naturally. I’m basically a grown kid, so that helps.
What is your favorite part about teaching the youth of the Pikes Peak region about composition/songwriting?
Well to be honest, I don’t consider myself a “teacher” in the traditional sense. Part of that is due to my lack of formal education in the arts, but also, I don’t know if you can really teach someone to write a song because it’s so subjective from work to work.
What I do try to teach these kids is how to express themselves, their feelings and emotions, which can be overwhelming to them, at their age, when not everyone wants to hear what they have to say. I have been told by more than one student that I am like a counselor for them and I think that’s wonderful.
Each of my students has a story they want to tell to the world around them and the desire to do so. My job is to bring that out of them in the most positive way possible and to teach them how to express it in a concise and meaningful way. If that desire and story isn’t present, then there isn’t much I can do.
You can teach a person to do long division whether they care about math or not, but songwriting starts with a desire to express yourself. I take great pride in reaching these kids where they are and not where I am. In other words, I don’t want to teach my kids to write “Joe Johnson” songs, I want to help them be who they are and be their best at that.
My favorite part is seeing the look in their eyes when they get the rhyme or the change right, and they know it. It’s a feeling you get when you’ve tried a line or phrase over and over and it’s not right then you finally say something that makes your brain fire and all of a sudden it’s perfect and you know you’ve said it the way you want it said.
Unlike other disciplines here where you are handed a piece of music, taught to play it, then perform it just like it is on the page, songwriting begins with a blank page and endless ways to fill it and play it. Seeing them realize the power in that fills me with great satisfaction and joy. Seeing their parents’ faces when they hear their songs makes me feel the true weight of joy that comes with this job. Speaking as a parent of a songwriting student myself, I know that pride all too well.
What are some of your fondest memories or experiences as a Program Mentor at Colorado Springs Conservatory?
I’ll never forget the first recital for my class, held at Lulu’s Downstairs in Manitou. Showing the students the stage and venue, which are second to none, was great in and of itself, but then showing them to their “green room” and seeing everyone’s eyes get big and the smiles along with them really made me happy. It’s very exciting for any songwriter to play such a venue, but to have it be your very first performance is something special indeed, and I’m very happy to be able to help make that happen.
I also remember, well, the very first day I taught at CSC. I was brought in for a camp we were doing with a local middle school. Fresh off a tour and only days before having slept regularly in my truck, I must have looked like a deer in headlights as this massive group of kids filed in the door. I just remember Jeff Grady (Recording Arts mentor and now very good friend) coming over and saying “Don’t worry man, just follow my lead,” and we were off! A few hours later we had written a rap song about their school. It was an amazing experience.
Why do you think music/performance education is important?
It’s important in so many ways: from attention to detail and discipline, to instilling confidence in yourself, there are few, if any, greater gifts a parent can give their child than to give them the gift of music and the love that comes with it.
Self confidence is probably chief amongst the many benefits they receive, but the atmosphere here at CSC is one of creation and inspiration, and every day I see so many kids open up to ideas and actions they never thought possible before.
We live in a world where all too often kids are told to sit down and be quiet, and of course there are many times where that’s what kids (and adults) should do. But there are too many instances where kids are ignored when they need to be heard. Music education, and especially songwriting, can be of great benefit to kids in that world and helps these young people learn the real value of self expression. Lastly, and most importantly to me, personally, is that it is a safe and healthy way for kids to spend their time. As a parent, the safety and wellbeing of my kids is most important to me.
Any advice to parents or guardians who are on the fence about committing to sending their kids to CSC?
My advice would be twofold. First, come visit the facility and see the magic that happens here. Meet the amazing people who give of themselves to teach the kids and take so much pride in watching them grow in their music and their lives. See the look on the faces of children of all ages when they learn to make music. This is truly an amazing place.
Secondly, close your eyes and picture a world without music where everything is just so bland and uneventful and then ask yourself who would ever want that. Our children are indeed the future, and the future needs music. Any parent wants the best future possible for their child and that very much begins with the ability to see the world for all its beauty and potential greatness. Nothing helps a person see that more than making music.
What are your favorite things to do/places to visit in and around Colorado Springs?
I still very much love going to Garden of The Gods. In fact, I love it so much we bought a house where we can see it every day! I am a history buff, so I really appreciate and enjoy the Pioneers Museum as well as many of the historic places our city has to offer. I enjoy taking drives in the mountains, and I am particularly fond of the Arkansas River Valley. Bishop’s Castle is another favorite place of mine, as well as Lake Isabel. …really, any of the lakes or reservoirs in the area that can accommodate me and my canoe.
What else is “in the works” for Joe Johnson?
I am currently finishing up my latest album titled “Dark Horse Pale Rider”, which I recorded during quarantine last year. It explores feelings of loss and isolation that I feel might resonate with so many people these days. It will be my fifth full length solo release. (I have also released three albums with a band and several singles and EPs)
After that, I will take a break before starting work on my follow up to the sparse and solo-based Pale Rider, which will feature a band and songs I have written about coming through the isolation and loss and finding hope in surviving the struggles. That companion album will be titled “Revenant”.
Besides that, I will continue working on singles to be released in between the albums and will play some here and there around the city while I wait for the ground to thaw out.
Who is your role model(s). Favorite quote or personal mantra?
I’m not sure if I have a role model but I have an extremely great amount of respect for Cary Hudson as a professional musician and friend and I will always hold Willie Nelson in high regard. Another artist I respect more than words allow is the late John Prine, who gave me one of my favorite quotes to put on the board in songwriting class. It really sums it up well for me.
“I could never teach a class on songwriting. I’d tell them to goof off and find a good hideout.”
Along those same lines is a quote that has served me well in this job. It comes from Greek philosopher and fellow beard aficionado Plutarch,
“A mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted.”
My mantra is wake up every day thankful that you did, and always keep your appreciations higher than your expectations.
Joe Johnson’s road trip playlist?
This is a tough one because it’s hard to narrow down to that few, but I’ll try. These are in no particular order, and I could literally make you a playlist that is 40 hours long, but here are a few essentials for highway travel:
1. > Windfall (Son Volt)
2. > Let’s Go Running (Blue Mountain)
3. > Let Me Ride in Your Big Cadillac and/or Clay Pigeons (Blaze Foley)
4. > L.A. Freeway (Guy Clark)
5. > Where I lead Me and/or Flying Shoes (Townes Van Zandt)
6. > Night Riders Lament (Jerry Jeff Walker version)
7. > Like a Rolling Stone (Dylan..and yeah it’s played out but still..)
8. > Don’t Cuss the Fiddle (Willie and Waylon)
9. > Long Haired Doney (R.L. Burnside)
10. > Traveling Alone (Jason Isbell)