Country Music People May 2019 - Page 18

H o n ky T o nk s , H o t p ants a n d B r o kenHe a r ts B CHRIS SMITH SPEAKS TO UK SINGER-SONGWRITER HANNAH JOHNSON ecoming anything other than a musician does not seem to have ever crossed Hannah Johnson’s mind; not just a musician though, a musician playing genuine country music. “I remember from a very early age being invited to get up and sing at Dad’s gigs,” she told me; Dad being much respected banjo picker, steel guitar session man and doyen of the Dobro Stuart Johnson. “He was always playing, at gigs or practicing at home and my sister Sophia and I just grew up immersed in the music.” Hannah is the younger of the two siblings; by the time she got her first guitar at the age of 14 her elder sister was already more than competent on the instrument and the two would practice together, harmonising vocals on classics such as Ernest Tubb’s Thanks A Lot and Bill Monroe’s Can’t You Hear Me Callin’? Once the girls had worked up half a dozen songs as their repertoire it was a simple task to pop downstairs and ask Dad if he would sit in on their practice sessions to add banjo and Dobro to the sound. He, of course, agreed and The Toy Hearts (the name taken from another Bill Monroe song they had learned) were formed. Dad’s experience and advice were invaluable. “He believed that performing live regularly would be the most expedient way for us to develop and hone our craft so he managed to find us a weekly residency in our hometown of Birmingham.” Working every week without fail from their mid teens taught them how to engage an audience, how to hold the 18 cmp - MAY 2019 attention of that audience and how to get people coming back again week after week; experience which helped establish The Toy Hearts in America and across Europe. Hannah told me, “We’ve always made more money outside of the UK, particularly in the United States where the tipping culture is really important. If the band play a song you like it’s perfectly normal to go and throw some money in their tip jar.” Hannah believes music is for dancing. “In Texas,” she explained, “as a band it is your job to keep people dancing, so you need to deliver plenty of shuffles and waltzes. It’s no big deal to play two hours straight, or at somewhere like Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, they expect four hours on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. It’s hard work, and I love it.” She also loves the fact that many of those authentic honky-tonk bars eschew the notion of so-called modern country; seeing a big hand written sign the management have stuck on the dressing room door reading “ABSOLUTELY NO WAGON WHEEL” or similar is not uncommon. It is at these shows where Hannah acknowledges the importance of Dad’s insistence on paying those early dues in Birmingham pubs. “I am truly bloody grateful to my Dad for making us do those weekly residency spots. It means I have a sufficient wealth of material to meet the demands of those long sets.” I asked Hannah what prompted the switch from Toy Hearts to a solo career and she had to think long and hard before answering. “In all truthfulness,” she confided, “the music industry in the UK nearly killed our family. It caused so much heartache and mental turmoil that in the end it almost destroyed us all – both financially and emotionally.”