Born in the Deep South, in Mobile, Alabama, to a blue-collared family, Derek Johnson is a 5th generation farm-boy, raised in small-town USA in towns the size of T-shirt pockets, who grew up hunting, fishing, hittin’ dirt roads, sittin’ around campfires, playing sports and lived on a 5,000 acre cattle ranch.
Yep, all of the above does sound like the typical “country-boy singing a country song”… but where the young star’s story takes a unique twist is… not many can say their Grandpa was roommates with Hank Williams Sr. and toured the same circuits with he and many other legends in the 1940’s and 50’s.
Not only did he teach his grandson guitar, but he also instilled the ‘chasin’ that neon rainbow’ fire into the heart of his future star.
Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, which local country artists did your family listen to?
We didn’t really have any local artists that were known… most people down south will talk about George Jones or Alan Jackson like they know them, so, that’s how it was growing up around my family. My Dad was a big George Jones fan… big. My Mom was really into 60's and 70's rock, so, there were a lot of contrasts there… she was a big Elvis fan, so, that’s my biggest memories.
My great aunt and uncle had a farm in Deep River, Iowa, that we visited every summer. What was a typical day of chores for you on the farm?
I had to start out on the bottom like my Dad said… “you can’t hop on the tractor first boy, you gotta work your way to it”… so, re-stranding barb wire fences with an old school post driver…. and it always seemed like they chose the hot summer to do it just for that… I also had a spray tank on a 4-wheeler and had to spray fence rows to keep the grass and other things overtaking fence… moving cows from one field to another… and more.
Your grandfather taught you how to play the guitar. What was his favorite guitar?
A 1947 J-45 Gibson Southern Jumbo.
What is your favorite story that your grandfather shared with you about Hank Williams Sr., who he roomed with in the 1940s?
I personally loved the stories of them rolling in late at night and my Grandpa hearing Audrey yelling at Hank and accusing him of this and that when some of it might of been true haha. Grandpa said… all those songs he wrote about “well you start you jaws a waggin’ and they never stop” — (“Long Gone Daddy” song)… he was a part of that without being a part of that haha.
Thank you for your service. Read your injuries forced you to leave the Army. How did your dog, Solomon, help you transition back to civilian life?
I think it’s the fact that he was a puppy… and also I didn’t feel like I had anyone to turn to outside of family and military buddies… I had to pretty much restart my whole life friend wise, so my Dad brought me Solomon as a little fella and I took him hunting with me and he wouldn’t leave my side. If people would watch the movie and read the book “The Art of Racing in the Rain”… I believe they’d understand that love. He’s my buddy.
You wrote “Nineteen” in honor of all veterans and soldiers. Did one event inspire the write?
I wish I could take credit for writing this… but I didn’t. I do know the writers. Jeffrey Steele (“My Wish” and many other hits), Gary Nicholson (many hits), and Tommy Hambridge. A publisher buddy of mine played it to me and it hit me so hard I had him burn me a copy… I was fresh out of the Army back in Nashville too… I pulled into the Nashville Veterans Memorial Cemetery and played it and shed a few for those surrounding me. I didn’t have a clue that Billy Ray Cyrus and Taylor Hicks had recorded it. I knew they weren’t Veterans and I could relate to it with a little more heart.
Besides an affinity for patches, how did you acquire your Army nickname?
Ironically my nickname in the Army was Bama… it made some of the others mad that were from Alabama, but my accent was thicker and I had graduated from Alabama so, that solidified that haha.
What memory stands out from tracking your debut EP, “Derek Johnson” in 2016?
I think I was still in such glow mode that it really flew by quick.
My Producer for one… Phil O’Donnell, big hit writer and producer, the session players that I had known a few personally and some of their names… my Mom and family friend getting to watch this magic that I had talked about for years… honoring my Grandpa by having his Gibson there in spirit. It was a great day all around.
How has studio life evolved from that first release to your most recent, “That Guy”?
I learn something new every time I go into record vocals… not knocking anyone’s thoughts or opinions… I hear people all the time saying “my friend can sing that Luke Combs song just like him if not better!” and I’m like yeah, because that’s muscle memory already paved and charted by Luke (or whomever). It’s difficult to take a song that no one has heard or that you wrote to make it market worthy. It’s even more difficult to do what the producer asks haha! I didn’t even know there was a such thing as a 1/64th note… and sometimes a word can go from two drastic notes on two syllables… I love it but it’s more of a college final when I leave each time.
Fan encounters, from that first one in Hattiesburg, Mississippi to living/playing in Nashville?
I’ve had quite a few since then… but not as often as many. It’s pretty cool, I like it in a humble way. It makes you feel good that someone loves your music and pays attention. And it’s also great to talk to them and let them know you’re a real person too.
Family support, for example having your mom in studio on Music Row, while working with producer Phil ‘Philbilly’ O’Donnell tracking. How have your parents encouraged your music career?
Yes and lovingly no lol. I mean, now that it’s happened for me, I do think that that’s fair that parents have a level of common sense on the subject. ‘Music’ is such a broad word… and kids should realize there’s a structure to a dream. Like my Dad always said, chase your dreams, but know when to throw in the towel. Just because you don’t make it does not mean you cannot perform or sing. I think the more you have success in it, the more they encourage you haha!
Using the same mic that Hank Jr. and Percy Sledge used in studio. How does that inspire an artist like yourself?
The fact that that mic had Roy Orbison, Hank Jr, Percy Sledge, the Commodores and many more… it’s like being able to sing into a time machine that produces your music but allows you to feel that amazing feeling that “I’m getting to follow and make history too”… there’s not another feeling like it to me. I love the history more than any part of this.
Undergrad in business led to an MBA in grad school. What were your favorite classes in college (not accounting, right?)?
Haha yes, my favorite is still Lunch break! I hated Accounting in undergrad and ending up making all A’s in MBA in it… so, ironically, I love it… though I’m still not very analytical minded. It’s definitely all about the professor for sure. Shout-out to Prof Ritsema!
Living and writing the country life. Which other up-and-coming artists are also living and writing country?
I really don’t get to listen much, but there’s a few that I like that I think could be on the charts…
Derek Johnson Country on Instagram: "One of my favorite George Strait songs! 🤠"
51 Likes, 4 Comments - Derek Johnson Country (@derekjohnsoncountry) on Instagram: "One of my favorite George Strait…
George Strait, just kiddin’ haha. I like Pierce Avenue, love their music, great writers and singers. I’ve written with them and they have a single out we wrote called “Wine + Whiskey” on iTunes. I also dig Josh Ward, Mo Pitney, Grace Asbury, Christina Christian, Neal Cooper, Melanie Meriney, and a few more.
You chronicle your journey from uniform to radio in “Red, White, Blue and Beer”. What songs did you listen to for inspiration while you were enlisted?
Ironically, in the Army, while in a tank we listened to a lot of Metallica and heavy metal haha. It seemed to make the time go by quicker. But I always tried to listen to George Strait, George Jones, Alabama, Mark Chesnutt… those are some of my favorites.
Fan of the University of Alabama — who is your all-time favorite from the school?
You’ve written with Rachel Thibodeau and Gary Nicholson. Which writers are on your bucket list to collaborate with?
This list could get very long quick… I’ve written with some great writers, been blessed to do so. But definitely: Jeffrey Steele, Ira Dean, Dean Dillon, Dallas Davidson, Ben Hayslip, David Lee Murphy… I could keep going!
Charting on Billboard with your latest single “Real Cool Kinda Hot”. What is the song’s backstory?
This was a last minute song… we did a pre-record meeting on Friday before we cut on Monday. Phil said we need a “hit single” and this was the first song he played in his catalog. He wrote this with Wynn Varble and Brian Callihan… it was actually recorded by Easton Corbin but he decided not to keep it. The song was perfect for me… a song about my dream girl, fishing, camo hat, can dress up and go uptown or the symphony, football game, etc. and then it mentioned Grandma, I was very close to mine (lost her last April), mentioned “Sweet Home Alabama”, and also says “sunburst Gibson”… so, all that together couldn’t have been written any better for me.
Which song on “That Guy” was the hardest to write and why?
Probably “I Love You To The Bar and Back”… that song took me a while to write as far as trying to figure out which way to go with it… but one night sitting in Texas, I kept scrolling on Facebook seeing all the “lovey-dovey” posts and “I love you to the moon and back” which I’ve never really understood why stop at the moon and I couldn’t find a date… so I kinda snarked at them and it hit me… “I Love You to the Bar and Back” and made it really cheesy and funny but also realistic enough that it happens when you get a little toasty.
What was it like to do the Billboard Radio interview at 94.7 The Country Giant’s Philip Gibbons for the new song?
That was awesome. Philip is Tennessee Radio Hall of Famer… so, no pressure right? We had a blast. It was my first Billboard Interview, but he said ‘you’d never tell’, I live for this. But definitely an honor and cherishable moment for me.
Did you construct the story board for the music video for the single?
Kinda… but I really let everyone associated with me and my teams put their vision first. My relative and buddy Calvin Casey (Casey Productions) did the production on it and he was the one telling which angles would shoot better and he knew what was going to keep a flow for the video.
You asked fans best concert they’ve been to. Which one is yours?
Hands down… I’d have to say the George Strait Festivals were always great. I remember seeing Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, Lila McCann, Tim McGraw, Dixie Chicks… it was always 5 to 6 on one show. But as a kid… my parents took me to George Jones, Alan Jackson, and Conway Twitty all in one night, that was epic.
Quarantine. Saw your post that you were out hunting turkey. How are you doing overall?
Not trying to be insensitive to those reading… but I was in the Army once lol so, a month, two months, any amount of quarantine couldn’t phase me. “Hurry up and wait” trains and prepares you for these kind of things. I think Fear is the worst thing that can happen. I see memes all the time on Facebook about “if you could stay at this cabin for 6 months but you have to leave your phone — could you make it”… clearly, 99% that said yes… can’t haha But I can. Been there, done that.
You asked fans what they’re grateful for after sharing your top three, health, sunshine, being able to make music. How can fans continue to support you and your music?
The biggest thing that an Indie Artist on Billboard needs is shares on my posts. And then your traditional word of mouth… or playing music at parties and get togethers… playing music and put mine on!