Richard Johnston Brings Beale Street Blues to the Big Island

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Halfway to Hilo, there’s a rockin’ little roadhouse called the Papaaloa Cafe. If you time it right, you can catch one of country blues musician Richard Johnston’s monthly gigs. 

He won’t be billed as Richard Johnston though, as he’s in a dispute with a German record label who released his 2002 debut album Foothill Stomp. Johnston recently moved to Hawaii to reinvent himself, and since last November he’s working under a new persona, Boozer Ramirez. 

Johnston says his interest in the blues came during his college years when he discovered Robert Johnson records. Johnston started paying his musical dues as street musician on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. This period was chronicled in the film Richard Johnston: Hill Country Troubadour. The documentary, directed by Max Shores, featured Johnston singing and playing his signature cigar box guitar. The movie won first place in the professional documentary film category at the 2007 George Lindsey/UNA Film Festival.

Johnston studied under blues artists including R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Jessie Mae Hemphill. Foothill Stomp featured Hemphill on vocals and tambourine, with assistance from R.L. Burnside’s grandson, Cedric Burnside, and others. 

Johnston’s Papaaloa Cafe gigs have the same gritty feel like he played in Memphis clubs. He manages to cram a bass, second guitar, drummer, amps, microphones, and himself on a tiny 5’ x 20’ dimly lit stage. There’s back up gear lined up down a narrow hallway, and the cafe starts to fill up around 5:30 as an anxious Aloha Friday crowd gets ready for another rowdy Ramirez performance

Johnston’s a ball of energy. During a well deserved break in his January show, while the rest of the band stepped outside for some fresh air, Johnston slipped back to the stage and sat behind the drum kit. Never wanting to let the room’s energy sag, he played and sang Steely Dan’s “Peg” until his band members returned.

Prior to the show, I sat down with Johnston to better understand why he came to the Big Island, and what his future plans are.

My wife and I busted up in 2013. She went to Southampton, and I decided to come to Hawaii to do anything but music for awhile… study permaculture, spend time with friends and nature, and see where life takes me. 

Karina, who works at the cafe, invited me over to Hawaii and play here. I might do another album here, and am looking at those possibilities. It might be wise for me to sign with a label, but I need to find an honest one.

I’m also flirting with music education. There’s a charter school that’s in need of a music director. 

When I asked Johnston about the “Lowebow” cigar box guitar he plays during his show, he was quick to correct me about it’s origins. For those who don’t know, John Lowe is a musician and bookstore owner from Memphis, and has become known for his unusual electric cigar box guitars called Lowebows. 

I won 1st place for Best Act in 2001 International Blues Challenge with an instrument I designed myself, which is a bass and guitar hybrid and uses two amps. I play it with a slide. It’s really not a Lowebow, that’s just the name of the guy who built it for me. 

What do you call it?

I call it a Hell Harp! It has one bass string, and three guitar strings. I designed it, and that’s a researchable fact. I came up with that instrument to battle in the blues challenge. 

John Lowe was working on a cigar box guitar with one bass string and two guitar strings. I asked him to make me the first three-string instrument. He did, I practiced on it before the competition.  

Lowebow is a brand name he placed on something I invented. I think at this point, he’s sold something like two million dollars worth of the guitars. I get nothing. In the documentary about me, he even admits I invented it.

As his order of fish & chips grew cold, Johnston continued his heated rant about being ripped off by Lowe, as well Reinhardt Hollstein, who runs the German Stag-O-Lee record label that released his first album. 

I changed the subject, and wanted to know about the other cigar box guitar.

That’s just a six-string guitar that’s hooked up to a guitar box. When I work with the students I tell them how you can make an instrument out of household junk.

I then asked Johnston about where his current music career is taking him.

I don’t want to be just one thing. I want to play music that’s more uniting than dividing, or just entertaining on one level. 

I’m not here to record an album… I’m living my life and it’s beautiful. 

At his January show at the cafe, Johnston brought two young proteges that he’s been coaching musically.

I was fortunate enough to run into two young people here on the island that have Hawaiian heritage. There names are Kumsa and Kyle, and they’re going to be joining me tonight. 

Kumsa is one of the best female guitar players I’ve ever encountered. I show her something, no pick, old style country blues… and she plays it back to me. There’s nowhere on the fretboard that she can’t follow.

I met her at Orchid’s Paradise in Kapoho. They host a jam every Tuesday, and I was invited down to play guitar behind everybody. I thought tonight would be a good time to giver her a recital. 

Kyle is a multi-instrumentalist. He can play anything! They’re only three years apart in age, and meeting for the first time tonight.

I’m trying to mentor them to keep a certain level of humility about playing music, and warn them about some of the dangers about being addicted to playing guitar, having them foster other interests as well, and make them more rounded.

These kids can do anything now. They don’t have to wait to get there ideas out there. My prediction is that they’ll become so famous that they’ll come back and teach me about the music business. 


 

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