SEATTLE — Dean Johnson has taken a casual approach to his music career. That’s not to say that the warmhearted perfectionist, who’s reluctant to inconvenience others with self-interests, doesn’t put a whole lot of care and craft into his spare compositions that could make even the grizzliest cowboy cry.
But with all the extracurriculars that accompany writing and playing songs for people, the Seattle singer-songwriter has operated with the pace of a lemonade-sipping Sunday river float. At least until recently.
“The general truth to my music stuff is that I’ve basically, since I started doing shows on a stage anywhere around Seattle, I’ve basically only taken shows that I got invited to do,” Johnson said over a coffee at Ballard staple Hattie’s Hat. “I’ve never even made my own shows. So, I’ve been relatively, very passive.”
That approach (or lack thereof) quietly earned the recognizably moustached artist a reputation as one of the best-kept secrets in the rootsier corners of Seattle’s music scene without ever releasing his own music. This year, however, word really got out that Johnson, known to many as the kind-eyed barman at Al’s Tavern in Wallingford and guitarist in local alt-country band Sons of Rainier, is more than an astute sideman when at long last he delivered his debut album in May.
Arriving on Johnson’s 50th birthday through reputable Portland label Mama Bird Recording Co., “Nothing for Me, Please” perked ears beyond the Northwest, earning Johnson several showcases at Nashville’s Americana Music Festival & Conference (think roots music’s South by Southwest) and opening dates with alt-country radical Nick Shoulders in late summer. Between the two, Johnson ventured out on his first proper solo tour and in August, the album’s lead single “Faraway Skies” — a spellbound, country waltz stargazer that flips cliche cowboy imagery into a micro portrait of someone living on the street — was featured in an episode of the hit show “Reservation Dogs.”
Back home, Johnson celebrated the album with a sold-out release show (and day-late birthday party) at Tractor Tavern, a show he turned into a local singer-songwriter showcase for friends and artists he admires that stands as one of the most familial gigs of the year. Half the crowd seemed to have no more than two degrees of separation from the folk-singing bartender, some donning stick-on mustaches in tribute to Johnson’s whiskered visage.
“Onstage and afterwards, I had the best time I’ve ever had at a show,” Johnson said. “Rarely have I ever come out from being done with the show into the audience and I was just open-arms happy. That’s pretty rare. I’m usually on kind of the hiding side.”
Johnson greeted another sold-out Tractor crowd Friday, where he was expected to be joined by out-of-state friends Duff Thompson and Steph Green, who run DIY label Mashed Potato Records.
Johnson actually recorded “Nothing for Me, Please” with Thompson and Sam Doores of Americana stalwarts The Deslondes back in 2018. Though between Mama Bird’s unhurried schedule, Johnson’s “unpushy” nature and the pandemic, it’d take five years for the recordings to see daylight. It was worth the wait. The dusty-plains set is one of the finest local collections of singer-songwriter fare since Courtney Marie Andrews kept a Washington mailing address.
Johnson met Thompson and Doores at a 2016 Conor Byrne show and the two invited him to record with them down in New Orleans. Encouraged by his Sons of Rainier mates Sam Gelband and Chris Acker, a Seattle-raised/now NOLA-based artist, Johnson eventually accepted the offer and the crew (along with Rainier’s bassist Charlie Meyer) set up in the living room of a communal house Acker shared with a handful of roommates.
“We got off the plane … and we realized as we were walking to his house that he hadn’t been there [yet],” Johnson said. “He’s moving in with, like, six roommates and he’s bringing us along.”
A tough self-critic who grew up on Camano Island and lived in Bellingham before moving to Seattle 20 years ago, Johnson went into the housewarming sessions with low expectations, partly because the Mashed Potato crew prefers to record live without overdubs — a process that runs counter to Johnson’s perfectionist tendencies. Although Johnson said he’s not particularly romantic about the “old-fashioned lo-fi recording sound” in general, the homey production value accentuates the warmly rustic quality of Johnson’s tender voice that has nowhere to hide on his laid-bare folk numbers, including the title track.
Written in 2004, the stripped-down “Nothing for Me, Please” is the oldest song on the album, a winking poke at “aspirations for an eternal afterlife,” its signature line delivered with the casualness of someone politely declining a slice of diner pie.
While Johnson had been invited to record closer-to-home before, it took his comfort and confidence in his collaborators to get him to finally cut these songs that gestated over neighborhood walks and late-night guitar-tinkering sessions.
“It was just me holding myself back,” Johnson said of the long wait for his first record. “I mean, it’s pretty embarrassing stuff to talk about why a person lacks ambition or is lazy. I think fundamentally, it just takes a lot of decision-making and I just didn’t navigate doing that. … I’m just sensitive to getting into relationships with music people. I don’t need to be that sensitive, I just am. I have a real aversion to, even asking people to record on an album is kind of a big ask.”
From the sounds of it, Johnson’s newly minted fans and longtime followers won’t have to wait another decade for a followup. After a year that saw the rising songsmith releasing his first solo album and another strong Sons of Rainier record, Johnson hopes to record his sophomore album in the coming months.
“It’s beat my expectations by kind of a long shot, as far as how the record’s been received,” Johnson said with an almost sheepish humility. “It kind of makes you want, crave more in a way.”
He’s not the only one.