When you talk about the tunes of Freedy Johnston, there’s only one little problem. After you’ve been blown away by his songs of suspicious circus carnies, shoplifters, unfaithful lovers, the drug-dependent and the truth-challenged, how do you tell people about this guy without worrying you’re overselling him. You don’t. Because you’re not. After twenty years of one great disc after another, the kid from Kansas is back. Bearing maybe the best record he’s ever made, Neon Repairman. And its songs will keep you up nights, just like those bright lights of the title track.
Like most of the general public, you probably first heard Freedy when his chiming, catchy single, Bad Reputation, full of his trademark tunefulness and street-level lyrics hit the airwaves. The song was the opening salvo of Johnston’s masterpiece, This Perfect World, superbly-produced by the legendary Butch Vig, of Nirvana fame. Vig kept the record radio-friendly, but brought enough clarity so that Freedy’s characters, the lost, criminal and crazy, all came through loud and clear. These desperate people caught not just the average listener, but filmmakers The Farrelly Brothers. Soon, several of Johnston’s tunes showed up in their comedy Kingpin. Topping that achievement, in 1995, Rolling Stone Magazine named Johnston Songwriter Of The Year. Enough to bring color to any man’s face. But when you saw that number two was Kurt Cobain, well, Johnston must’ve really blushed. Rolling Stone made the right decision, too. It won’t be long until This Perfect World, starts showing up on everyone’s All-Time Best Album lists.
After touring the album, sharing stages with everyone from The Indigo Girls to Jackson Browne, he dropped Never Home, another collection of strong, literary songs, produced by Danny Kortchmar, best-known for his guitar work with James Taylor. The record had Johnston’s usual raggedy bunch of immoral or simply exhausted Americans. In the rockin’ radio track, On The Way Out, a two-bit thief wonders less about stealing than how he’ll look on the surveillance cameras. As a sparse band kicks ass behind his creepy musings. Western Sky, tells a sad, panoramic tale of a pilot whose “son won’t fly” so the two take off in a car, while wife and mother, ironically, flies above them in a jet. Rarely has there been an an album so beautifully bleak.
Johnston made several more superb discs for his label, but his luck could’ve been better. The record industry nosediving, he went indie. While producing several more solo gems, Johnston was briefly part of two alternative supergroups: The Know-It-All-Boyfriends (featuring Vig) and The Hobart Brothers and Lil Sis, which sported songwriters Jon Dee Graham and Susan Cowsill (yes, that Susan Cowsill) for a loose, lovely album of country-ish tunes.
But today is a new day. And after raising funds indepedently, Johnson has produced another peak, easily the equal of his Elektra albums. Neon Repairman glows with the same gorgeous, lonely light that its title song implies. ‘Repairman’ is one for the ages. The songwriter felt so protective of it, that for the first time, he produced the record himself, perfectly.
The album kicks off with the comically-crazy Angeline. With a Country-music backing, this rollicking tune features one of Freedy’s most off-the-wall plotlines. About a crazy carny who goes to jail for selling drugs on the side. It makes for an intoxicating opening, but just warms you up. The Folk-Rock follower, Baby, Baby, Come Home, with its memorable chorus, should get the airplay it deserves. One listen and the refrain won’t leave you alone for days. It’s more typical, less twisted than most of the artist’s work and the stronger for it. Winning and winsome, it’s just waiting for one of those black-hatted Country cats to cover it. It’s a hit single if there ever was one. Broke Street Light also shames most of the drugstore cowboys we’re inundated with these days. Blake Shelton, Brad Paisley. Want some real Country cred? Cover this song!
Finally, there’s that title tune. And it’s a pip. A tip of the cap to ace songsmith Jimmy Webb, here’s a narrator who could be you or me. Sung to the soothing strains of acoustic guitar, Neon Repairman, is a Wichita Lineman for the 21st Century. This tune may be about a man who fixes burned-out bulbs, but anyone who works or feels alone, will relate to this lovely bit of acoustic Americana. Webb, incidentally, is a fan of Freedy’s. He’s praised his “Exquisite sense of melody and economy and a sort of windswept loneliness that is peculiarly American.”
The driving, the solitude, the blue-collar work ethic evinced in the title of his new album suits Johnston to a T. He does dozens of dates every year across our big country. New albums are great and Freedy’s new one is arguably his best. But when he saunters through your city, see him live. Johnston is wonderful in concert. His guitar playing is strong, his singing as lean, lonesome and American as Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath. Freedy will be out soon, playing songs from Neon Repairman and other favorites. He’ll have CDs and T shirts to buy after the show. As for fixing your neon sign? You’ll have to take that up with him personally. But if he can’t, you’ll still be glad you caught this superb singer-songwriter. He’s as bright and striking as the neon signs that show up in the night. Just when we need a place to go for company, coffee, a movie. Or simply someplace warm. A joint that will take us in. When we need it the most.