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{Review} Dan Johnson – Hemingway

by: Cody Starr

Fort Worth’s Dan Johnson is still gaining his footing as a reputable singer-songwriter around these parts. Over the last 18 months, he’s moved in the right direction for sure, surrounding himself with folks that have been in the game for a while and doing it right. These days you’ll find Johnson at his recurring “Almost Famous” gig at Love & War in Plano, song swapping with the likes of Josh Grider, Drew Kennedy, and Ben Danaher. We also covered this collaboration with his hero, Walt Wilkins. That’s some good company, and Dan Johnson is about to showcase all he’s learned with a very personal and ambitious project.

July 27th will see the release of Hemingway, a tribute to his father, Terry Johnson. Two years in the making, Johnson conceived the title track while standing in the writing room of Ernest Hemingway in the paradise of Key West, Florida. The music however took its roots a long time ago, as many of the stories told on Hemingway come from Johnson’s life. His father sustained a debilitating back injury while serving in the Air Force. Discharged with minimal benefits, Terry Johnson struggled to hold a job, his body too broken to endure manual labor and no college education to find professional work. Over time, the feelings of betrayal coupled with the stresses of providing for a growing family led to mental illness, culminating in Terry Johnson taking his life the day before Dan’s 10th birthday. Dan grew up and spent years battling his own demons, and even flirting with suicide himself. But he made different choice, instead Johnson turned his life around and started Operation Hemingway, an organization combating veteran suicide through education and intervention.

The 5 song EP is packaged alongside a corresponding set of short stories co-written with Texas novelist Travis Erwin (author of Twisted Roads and The Feedstore Chronicles). Johnson also called on Adam Odor, whose production prowess has been a Golden Touch as of late, to help realize the vision. Each song and story stands on its own, but when woven together, Hemingway paints a world that’s rich and contemporary, but told in a timeless fashion worthy of the album’s namesake. It’s Johnson’s best work to date and is already garnering attention both within and beyond the Lone Star State.

Hemingway isn’t for casual listening and getting through the audio book is emotionally trying. However, to fully enjoy its beauty listening to both the music and the audio book is absolutely mandatory. Once you get your hands on Hemingway, first listen to the record minus the short stories. Listen multiple times, forming a picture of the characters and the events of each song then back fill with the audio book. Johnson’s songs solidify, taking on more color and different meanings in their new context. The short stories are akin to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, where plot lines are presented independently and out of chronological order. Characters, events, and even objects introduced in one story make cameos in other chapters and once completed, the listener must put all the pieces in place to see the big picture. Scenes of intense, graphic violence are balanced with moments that are tender and heartwarming. It’s a story that questions the definitions of good and evil and how much of it we create with our choices versus what’s perceived as fatalistically determined. There are Easter eggs galore, some easily found while others are only known by Johnson and Erwin. The following rundown will give you a taste of each song and story on Hemingway. There are minor spoilers.

The Favor – The Favor leads off, immediately giving the sense you’re in for a bumpy ride with an ominous, Old West finger-style guitar intro. The song’s chord progression provides a repetitive, dark backdrop for Johnson to tell the tale of his first two characters, Billy and Jenny. Driving through the bayous of Louisiana on their honeymoon, the newlyweds find trouble in the Malvo brothers. The story unfolds chorus-free, with screaming guitars describing the bloody carnage that ensues when Billy summons an unconventional ally for help.

While Billy and Jenny are the first characters introduced in Hemingway, chronologically the events of The Favor take place at the end of the story. The song references a “hammered coin of silver”, a recurring element that permeates the entire Hemingway narrative. Passed among the characters, Johnson and Erwin use the token as a conduit to bring luck, both good and bad, to the current owner. In the story we are told the coin is a Tyrian shekel, a currency dating back to the Roman Empire. Historically, it’s believed to be the form of payment Judas Iscariot received for betraying Christ. Given all the supernatural events that surround it, we are led to think the shekel in the story was THE coin given to Judas. The original owner wishes to “get his money back” seeing that the crucifixion of Christ backfired, resulting in the salvation of mankind.

The full backstory of Billy is told in chapter 2, “The Devil’s Child”. Jenny is primarily mentioned in song, though both characters make a brief appearance elsewhere.

Hemingway – the title track to the project begins with a tranquil piano intro, an almost paradise-like setting for Johnson tell the abbreviated story of the main character, John Rivero Jr. Rivero is a quiet but ornery 18-year-old from Key West. He enlists in the army and quickly earns the nickname “Hemingway” from is army brethren, who love his embellished tales of life growing up in the Keys. Once again Johnson tells the story verse by verse, with an epic chorus that gets larger with each pass as more instruments fill out the song (including Lloyd Maines on pedal steel). There’s a crescendo, then the song strips down to unveil the tragic final verse.

The full story of John Rivero Jr. is told in chapter 5, titled “Hemingway”. It’s the heart of the project and obviously inspired by the tragedy of Terry Johnson. John is a second generation fisherman, who works alongside his overbearing father for a local fishing guide, Captain Rick. He grows up a local football hero and starts dating Emily Atwell, another main character whose story is told later in the book. Emily is convinced her and John are “meant to be” but John, unsettled and searching, decides to enlist in the Army. John and Emily stay in contact for a while, but John eventually withdraws and breaks it off. While serving overseas, he grows quite adept at spotting IEDs, leveraging his skills acquired spotting fish for Captain Rick. One day after getting some unexpected news concerning Emily, John has a momentary loss of focus while out on patrol resulting in a singular event that sends him down a path of unbearable pain and regret.

Bloom – By comparison, Bloom is the closest thing to a silver-lining in the Hemingway opus. Originally written for Johnson’s three daughters, it’s the coming of age story of a young woman returning home to spend some final days with her mother, who is terminally ill. Piano and acoustic guitar paint a picture of innocence and purity as the song’s protagonist reflects on her decision to leave and how her mother’s wisdom and love carried her on her journey to the woman she’s become. Odor and Johnson layer it on thick with the instrumentation, 27 tracks in total, featuring violins, vocals and church bells to build a full and worthy daughter-mother tribute.

In the Hemingway narrative, the young woman is Emily Atwell, and Chapter 7 – “Heirloom” is the Hemingway story from her perspective. After John crushes her heart, Emily isn’t ready to hear it from her parents, especially her mother. Needing to escape, she heads to LA to find her way. In the story Emily’s mother, Theresa Atwell, is loosely based on Dan Johnson’s mother; both have a passion for roses.

Tom Waits For No One – Johnson and Odor return to the darker vibe, but wrapped in a Latin dance groove, with trumpet and Flemenco guitar throwing additional weight behind a 7-piece Cuban percussion section. Tom Waits is tune about a man waiting for his lady, having labored to establish the perfect romantic dinner. The night progresses, the wine bottle empties, the food gets cold and slowly he realizes his night isn’t going to happen. In real life, Johnson experienced a similar dinner years ago, and the nod to Tom Waits is in reference to the music playing on repeat that evening.

The main protagonist in this song is Captain Rick, employer of both Romero men. Captain Rick is the grizzled, no bullshit, tell-it-like-it-is father figure of Hemingway. The backstory of Captain Rick is told on track 9 of the audio book and covers relevant events from earlier in his life. Titled “Ice Water”, we learn that Rick is in a love triangle with his supposed soulmate, Rosie. As one can surmise, it’s complicated, and many threads are tied together in the big picture story.

Lone Gunman’s Lament – Solemn in it’s delivery, the last song describes the final moments of a gunman-for-hire coming to terms with all the pain he’s brought to the world. He’s realized his motivations for killing were cold and selfish, and has only perpetuated the pain and suffering he’s felt for most of his life. Regret and tears follow, and only a single path for penance remains.

The story of Grady Wayne Johnson is told in chapter 11 – “A Bad Man”. Grady grows up in a household of extreme violence and one evening his father loses control and goes on a drunken rampage. The details are truly disturbing and the horrors of that night drive the course of Grady’s life. The Lone Gunman’s story is ultimately about how one has a choice in how to handle a traumatic past.

Dan Johnson’s undertaking with Hemingway is heavy and thought provoking. I wouldn’t play it at your casual dinner party, but those with a penchant for great songwriting and storytelling will find their time invested in Hemingway well spent.

After the release, Johnson will embark on a nationwide tour promoting the project, his message, and to raise money locally to help struggling veterans. 100% of the tour proceeds will go to those local charities while 20% of Hemingway sales will go to Operation Hemingway.

To learn more about Operation Hemingway check out: https://www.operationhemingway.org/

For more on Dan Johnson – https://www.danjohnsonmusic.us/

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