Will Johnson is a cool glass of drink. However much that may be, one gets the feeling that the glass is definitely half-full, yet the man from Austin sings as if it's half-empty, curling brows into a universally known, signature downtrodden move and flopping consolatory arms across the shoulders of some idea of personal/spiritual struggle. Those folks, unlucky in love and life, in his many songs as a solo artist and as the leader of Centro-matic and South San Gabriel, are portrayals of the greater part of existence, or at least the part that takes up the most time and steals the most scenes.
It's a matter of perception, but Johnson gives sweet voice to that which is both empty and full, wanting and needing, having and have-not - the space on the chart where the overlapping red and yellow circles make an orange oval. He's as good as anyone at pinning a tale on the happiness, with the prick of the pin turning it into something less happy, until eventually the mood finds its somberness. It's a clear 60-40 split - the blend churning simultaneously - of the good and the bad, always more of the good, but it's close, you know?
It's an unlikely place to find a relevant touching point, but another Will - Willie Nelson - makes a slightly imperfect nod to, or about what potentially causes the ever-present, middling crossbreed of happy and sad in the travel song "On The Road Again," when he sings, "We're the best of friends/Insisting that the world keep turning our way." The line is likely about travel (remember that it was billed as an imperfect reference from the beginning), but the thought of insisting that the world obey, that life obey is an unwinnable battle.
It is a battle worth fighting according to Johnson, trying to get obedience out of all the hard knocks and light blows that rip like the dickens. Cooperation comes and goes for all of the characters that Johnson creates in his beautiful folk songs, leaving them high and dry and looking for some place where their missteps aren't so tireless and lasting. Vultures can mingle with sparrows and robins, while darkness sometimes brings the sharpest light. Johnson is an unmistakable talent, stumped about whether or not the devil - the real devil - really exists and continually finding that token goodness in every broken day.
*Essay originally published July, 2007