Johnson’s Crossroad brings some Asheville spirit, W. Va. sound to Brackins
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
To find his calling, Keith Minguez traveled 400 miles down the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, from Morgantown, W. Va., to Asheville, N.C.
What he found was a town not too different from home, full of music, art and new possibilities. He was 30 years old, and he was just starting his life, he told The Daily Times this week.
“I was property managing at the time, and that was just hell,” Minguez said. “I was looking at people in their 50s and 60s, and they were telling me to follow the dreams I had as a kid. So I thought I needed to get away and move away from my hometown and learn how to play the mandolin.”
That was three years ago, and in Asheville, he hooked up with an old friend from West Virginia, Paul Johnson. The two first met in 1998 at West Virginia University in Morgantown; Minguez was still figuring out what he wanted to do with his life; Johnson blew through like some vagabond minstrel who would be a part of Minguez’s life ever since.
“I was at a party, sitting in a room and watching him and his friend play,” Minguez said. “I’d just discovered John Hartford, and before I knew it, we were friends and he was crashing on my couch. He penned some of the songs on the first two albums right there in my living room.”
In Asheville, Minguez focused on teaching himself to play mandolin. It wasn’t easy — “it’s an ornery instrument, hard as hell, and it takes forever to learn,” he said — and he often chided himself for missing out on the annual bluegrass festival that took place every year only a few miles from his childhood home in New Jersey.
But the lack of a bluegrass background actually proved beneficial to the band that would become Johnson’s Crossroad — Minguez wasn’t locked into a particular style or beholden to a strict bluegrass tradition; his freewheeling style both tempered and encouraged Johnson’s songwriting, and together the two men put together something they’ve since dubbed “Appalachian soul.”
“We’re fans of John Hartford, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Willie Nelson — the real heavy-hitting songwriters,” Minguez said. “I’m not crazy about bluegrass, but I love Bill Monroe like no other, just the same way that there’s little country I like, but I love Hank Williams.
“And we’re fans of the Grateful Dead — when I met Paul, that’s all he was doing was covering the Grateful Dead. He’s like a jukebox. But the jam band thing, I can’t get on top of that. Going to a Dead show, and I’ve been to a few, it’s cool then and there, in that moment. But that’s not us.”
They’re not a jam band, not a cover band — although they’ll throw in some covers, especially when it’s a tough crowd — so what, exactly, is Johnson’s Crossroad? The guys blend blues, roots-rock, folk, Old Time and Appalachian music for a sound that’s both mournful and jubilant, breezy and graveyard serious. Johnson’s voice barely rises above a growl, but he stretches that sound to encompass the experience of a train-hopping hobo and the wisdom of an old man recalling loves lost and wars fought from the porch of a backwoods cabin.
In Asheville, it fits right in.
“It’s a pretty amazing place in terms of what I was looking for and what I wanted to do,” Minguez said. “I got here and found out its a Mecca for music and art and ridiculous amounts of delicious food. It’s a nice place to come and make a home base, and being here, you realize that you need to step it up and make things really happen.
“Just living in this town, it’s a hot bed. You either find some way to crawl forward or you just go home, I guess. It just hooked me, and it just feels like a place you want to be if this is what you’re trying to do.”