Sustaining a creative life of musical output is one full of risk, hard work, freedom, and sometimes triumph. It’s a path Canadian musician Gordie “Grady” Johnson knows well, and he brings to it his own blend of diversity. In addition to fronting the reggae rock outfit Big Sugar, and southern metal band Grady, Johnson also wears the hat of producer, songwriter and session musician.
Notorious for playing rural towns as well as big cities, Johnson saw years of commercial success in Canada and abroad with Big Sugar. However, during the mid-2000s Johnson grabbed the reigns in all facets of his career.
Drawn to the lifestyle and music of the Southern United States, Johnson set up shop in rural Texas while using Austin as home for his power trio Grady.
Getting the Rush
Johnson was originally born in Winnipeg, Manitoba and grew up between Alberta and Ontario. As a youth in the border town of Windsor, Ontario, Johnson absorbed a balance of Canadian and American culture. “I can remember as a teenager going to see Rush in Detroit in ’77 and I remember thinking ‘THIS is what I want to do!’” Ironically, years later it would be Alex Lifeson of Rush who would give Johnson his first double neck Gibson guitar.
In its early incarnations, Big Sugar played as a back-up band for many Toronto jazz musicians, including singer Molly Johnson. She would eventually help the band secure a record deal. Big Sugar’s self-titled debut was released in 1991 as Johnson and the band began to establish themselves by consistently delivering powerful live shows. The band’s is its delivery of sound was also remarkably consistent.
“We play way too loud. You shouldn’t be able to hear yourself think. I don’t want people thinking. I want them focused on what’s going on up on stage,” says Johnson. While most guitarist opt for a single pick, Johnson’s weapons of choice are several finger picks to combine with his signature slide guitar style.
As the bandleader and key songwriter of Big Sugar, Johnson tried many line-up changes with the band. By the 1996 release of Hemi-Vision, which included tracks recorded in English and French, he had acquired the r&b and blues touch of harmonica and saxophone player Kelly Hoppe.
Rastaman Garry Lowe had also became an official member on bass, solidifying the reggae and dub ingredients.
The band’s next release Heated went on to platinum success in Canada, firmly establishing the unique reggae roots rock sound that is Big Sugar.
Johnson is not only diverse when its comes to his own projects. His diversity is also evident in his collaborative efforts as producer, mixer, songwriter, and session player, keeping him extremely active in both Canadian and American scenes. He has had a hand in producing and creating with some of Canada’s most notable rock artists including Joel Plaskett and The Trews. He is also currently working with Canadian blues rockers Wide Mouth Mason on their new record.
South of the border, Johnson’s studio of choice is Willie Nelson’s Perdenales Studios just outside of Austin. In addition to recording his Grady records there, he has also invited other Canadian artists down to record. Since moving to Austin, Johnson has worked with many other artists including Taj Mahal, The Black Crowes, and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. Through his work with Warren Haynes (Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule) he produced the most recent Gov’t Mule record.
The Loudest Canadian band in Texas
With a desire to start from scratch, a do–it-yourself mentality and love of rock and roll, Johnson and former Big Sugar bassist “Big” Ben Richardson set their sights South in 2003. After words of encouragement from Chris Layton (Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble) to settle in Austin, Texas, the duo would ultimately bring him in as the first drummer in Grady.
Southern lifestyle and eclectic musical immersion have inspired the truthful sounds coming from Grady. Austin, Texas exists as a melting pot of all varieties of music. While blues, country, folk, and rock were already elements in Johnson’s sound, a chance to live it and breathe it nightly was the gravitational force.
“Regionally where we live and where the music is coming from, there are a lot of influences that never would have probably reached my ears living in downtown Toronto. I live out in the country in a little town in Texas so I hear Mexican radio stations and heavy metal bands coming through San Antonio and Austin. There’s lots of blues and country. I work out of Willie Nelson’s studio so a lot of that music drifts across my plate too,” says Johnson.
The influence works both ways. “We did a song a while back called “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide”… it could have very well been about Grady and Big Sugar, especially since Canada is so big,” says Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top.
Good As Dead
Fans north of the border were met with a sharp departure from the Big Sugar’s familiar sound when Grady toured Canada. Grady is straight-ahead, heavy, gut-bucket rock and roll with Southern sensibilities.
After holding auditions for a new drummer in 2007 in Austin, Grady acquired Nina Singh for duties on drums. Once welcomed as an official member, it would ironically turn out that Singh was also Canadian.
The trio’s latest effort, Good As Dead, is a streamlined Southern rock gem. Grady has cut a unique sound, described by the British press as “Cowboy Metal.” This is music made for dark, sweaty bars and nightclubs where inside you’ll find the good and the bad. Grady resonates at a low frequency with sounds of Southern hard rock laced with traditional folk and blues melodies.
Good As Dead captures the dry darkness and heat of the American Southwest. Reminiscent of Black Sabbath and Motorhead, Johnson delivers an utterly crushing Gibson double-neck and SG guitar sound. Throughout, Johnson’s strengths as a songwriter, guitarist, and vocalist shine.
On The Road Again
In the spring of 2010, Gordie “Grady” Johnson reunited Big Sugar. In addition to his work with Grady and Big Sugar, Johnson is also on call for touring bass duties with The Trews and Wide Mouth Mason (who Johnson played with this summer opening for ZZ Top’s Canadian dates.)
To experience some of Gordie Johnson’s music, seek out and have a listen to these select tracks which are standouts in an extraordinary career. These songs are an excellent starting point for new listeners and a glimpse at Johnson’s large body of work. Below that, you will find two excellent videos for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!
“Diggin A Hole” on Hemi-Vision (Big Sugar)
“If I Had My Way” on Hemi-Vision (Big Sugar)
“Groundhog Day” on Big Sugar
“If I Was King” on Good As Dead (Grady)
“Good As Dead” on Good As Dead (Grady)
Gordie “Grady” Johnson On Video
What Do You Think?
Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts on the music of Gordie Johnson. What are some of your favorite songs or albums? How have they affected you? If you have seen Grady or Big Sugar in concert, please share some of your comments about the shows.
“Gordie Johnson Main” Shayne Kaye @ Flickr.com Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Gordie Johnson 1” Kashmera @ Flickr.com Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Gordie Johnson 2” Scott Penner @ Flickr.com Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Gordie Johnson 3” Shayne Kaye @ Flickr.com Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
Recent Chris Finch Articles:
- Soundgarden, Reignited
- Essential Listening: Gordie “Grady” Johnson — If I Was King
- John Scofield — Scorched — Victoria International JazzFest 2010
- Dr. John and The City That Care Forgot
- Stevie Wonder — Songs in the Key of Life