By Roger Sharman.
CL: Hi Royce, and thank you very much for taking the time to chat to us today. How are you doing today?
RJ: I’m doing good thank you
CL: Excellent. So, what have you been up to?
RJ: Well, yesterday, I got a 2004 Mercury Grand Marquis, it’s been my road warrior since 2016 for Country Music and I just got around to doing a Transmission filter fluid change on it. Also, I’ve been doing some brake work and what not out in the 30-degree weather in my garage and just getting prepped for spring and summer, man.
CL: So, you do all of your automobile work yourself do you?
RJ: Hell yeah, man. I’m too cheap to pay someone else!
CL: Well, it’s a very handy skill to have, I guess.
RJ: Yeah, man. I like the idea of being the master your own universe kind of thing and if you can’t work on it shouldn’t own it. You know?
CL: Definitely! Royce, you’re pretty young for the country music industry, you’re 25 years old now is that right?
RJ: Oh, man, I’m a relic now. They got kids coming up of 15, 16 and 17 years of age, but yeah, I’m 25 and a half now.
CL: I’ve never been any good with guessing ages and ever since seeing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that’s thrown me even more (collective laughter). Anyway, at what age did you first start making music?
RJ: Oh, I started out around 19. I never sang until I was 19, I was a guitar player. I just played in my bedroom kind of thing. I was never part of a musical thing in school. I got all liquored up one night and I took my acoustic guitar out to a street corner in the town I was living in one night and busking to some college kids and I thought this is kind of fun. I knew about three songs at the time and I would play them over and over again. Anyhow, the audience threw some quarters at me. I thought here’s my business model so I get better at this.
CL: You’re self-taught, are you?
RJ: Yeah, unfortunately.
CL: Well, it’s turned out pretty well, it could have turned out a whole lot worse, let’s put it that way.
RJ: Yeah, I know people went to music college and are still broke and can’t get a gig, I don’t know, I don’t have a philosophy on who to learn from, even the best people don’t know what they’re talking about.
CL: Well, I guess that helps in developing your own style. So, you don’t have a musical background? No siblings or family members or parents that play instruments?
RJ: My Parents didn’t play anything. My Grandma play guitar and my great Grandpa used to sing and play country music, that’s my Grandma’s dad, I think he passed away in the late 80s, but they would get together and have a family reunion in the 50s 60s 70s. They would play Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Bob Wills, a lot of old Texas Country stuff, you know from the 30s and 40s. That was classic to them in the 70s and 80s. You know, and since then a lot of that music has kind of died off, so that’s kind of where I was influenced by a lot of the older stuff. I love the history so I kind of kept digging deeper and deeper. I love that, I love the history of it man. That’s one of the most interesting parts for me.
CL: Oh yes, the history is absolutely fascinating. Did you get to see the Ken Burns ‘Country Music’ documentary?
RJ: I’ve heard of it; I haven’t got to see it yet. I just haven’t had time. I heard it’s like 12 or 18 hours.
CL: Yeah, I think it’s nine or ten episodes, around twenty hours long, but it goes into detail of people who are just, you know, they’re new to the scene maybe and getting into Country music and are interested in the background. It’s really well recorded, really well made. He’s a master, Ken Burns, at documentaries. He must spend his whole life researching stuff.
RJ: Yeah, I’ve heard, you’re probably the sixth or seventh person that has told me that in my circle. They’ve all said it’s just fantastic, and I do need to watch that. I just don’t get a whole lot of TV time.
CL: You started up a band called Lincoln Rockhouse when you were in your youth, well you are still in your youth actually, but when you were a bit younger, and you were in a covers band weren’t you?
RJ: Yeah, yeah, we were a classic rock trio, and I played guitar and sang. We did a lot of blues rock stuff, but I would do a lot of Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan stuff, not well I might add, and then, Clapton and Cream stuff. I just learned a lot about, dealing with people and playing out, that was my first real experience. The other two guys in the band were sixty-five, so they’ve been around the block, but the drummer, well his band, they used to tour with Tower Power, and he used to drum with them sometimes, they’ve been around. The bass player, he’s one of the rock guys in the Des Moines area. They took me in really, but I ran the whole thing though, I did all the bookings etcetera, the drummer had the PA. I mean, it was just a crash course on how to make a living playing music, and I took that and duplicated it with the solo acoustic thing, and I’ve done that ever since January 2016. It’s five years now, so that’s where I’m at.
CL: It’s not that much of a change, but it’s a bit of a change from playing the rock stuff to country, what made you decide to go down the country route?
RJ: Well, I always had a lot of older country influence, but when I started singing, with a lot of the rock stuff, my voice just didn’t fit with it. I’m just not a rock singer. I love the guitar, and I love Rock, but that’s not where my workload lies, and I love, love old country music. I love stories, and you lose a lot of that in rock music, and I’ve just I found that my voice fits with the country stuff a lot better. You know, I love those old stories, man.
CL: I think the with the rock vocal that you sound way better, if you got that kind of voice that sounds like you’ve been eating gravel, that raw and rough kind of sound, and your voice is obviously very, very smooth and almost silky, you can almost touch it.
RJ: Yeah, it doesn’t fit too well, with a lot of that Led Zeppelin stuff, it would be like Buck Owens singing Zeppelin!
CL Yeah, like some of the more screamy, shouty, sort of loud stuff, but I can think of more than a couple of songs that you could do really well.
RJ: Have you guys ever heard of the Country Side of Harmonica Sam? They’re from Sweden.
CL: No. Can’t say that I have.
RJ: Oh my god. They’re my favourite band right now. Dude, the singer sounds just like Buck Owens and George Jones, man. I mean, no accent at all and he sounds just like he’s from Tennessee, dude. I mean, it’s wicked. it’s a five-piece band with fiddle and steel and swing jazz guitar. It is the coolest fucking thing I’ve ever heard. They’re probably my favourite band right now.
CL: I’ll have to check them out.
RJ: Oh my god. They’re the best man.
CL: They sound very interesting, especially the fact that they’re from Sweden as well.
RJ: Dude, just look up ‘Drink After Midnight’ by the Country Side of Harmonica Sam, that whole record is solid country gold. It sounds like the songs are recorded and written in the 50s. It’s so good man.
CL: Sounds right up my street.
‘Truckstop Souvenirs’ was released back in 2018. Your first record?
CL: Did you do a lot the writing event for yourself?
RJ: No, no, no. A friend of mine, Robert Deitch. He’s a songwriter from 10 miles from where I live. He’s been writing out in Nashville for the last 10 years or so. He did write with a lot of the writers out there and he has a publishing deal. I met up with him, ironically, we’re like neighbours, and he’s just a hidden gem. He never played out in Iowa but he travelled to Nashville and I just bumped into him one time, you know through a friend of a friend and we got together and he kind of took me under his wing. We took seven songs from his catalogue that hadn’t been recorded before, except for ‘Abilene Anywhere’, he did that, but the other six were just shelved songs that he wrote with other number one writers or other writers in town and no one ever recorded them. ‘Truckstop Souvenirs’ was passed on, like he said, it’s like half a dozen different times these songs have never been pitched. Seriously I said “this is one of the best stories I’ve ever heard”. Then he says “yeah, we wrote it around 2013 when Florida Georgia Line was getting big”. So that kind of stuff was out, and it just got shelved. To cut a long story short, I picked it up and went on to record it. There’s been a lot of a lot of traction. I mean, even today, it gets, I don’t know, four or five thousand streams a week, from Spotify’s algorithm. It just keeps reaching people. I don’t know how or why but it’s one of my favourite songs he’s written.
CL: Did you use Robert, on ‘One Last Two Step’ as well?
RJ: Robert and I co-wrote ‘One Last Two Step’ with Roger Murrah. We wrote the ‘The Great State Escape’, well all three of us did. Roger Murrah wrote ‘Don’t Rock the Jukebox’ for Alan Jackson. Roger wrote ‘High Cotton’ for Alabama, ‘I’m in a Hurry’ for Alabama. ‘Phantom of the Opry’. He actually just got a Willie Nelson cut, ‘Immigrant Eyes’ on his last record.
CL: he’s got quite a resume then!
RJ: He was friends with Waylon Jennings. They wrote ‘A Man Called Hos’. It was a biography album with Waylon, if you look at the cover of it, I think it was from 1988, it says ‘A Man Called Hos’ by Roger Murrah and Waylon Jennings. He’s a Hall of Fame, songwriter. I was very lucky. He was Robert’s old mentor, and, and he used to employ Robert, before he sold his company to a guy named Dan Hodges. Here’s a little fun history for you, Robert actually took Luke Bryan’s job in 2006. When he got signed to Murrah Music. Luke was actually on Roger’s publishing company, and when he became Luke Bryan, not the writer, but the artist we know him as, around 2006. He left Murrah Music and Robert filled that spot. My buddy from Iowa.
CL: That’s a good story. Look how Luke’s ended up now.
RJ: I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but he’s made a lot of money
CL: It’s good for him. Let’s put it that way. Not so sure about everyone else, but it’s good for him.
RJ: I’m not a fan of his music, but everybody says he’s a great guy. So, we can’t hate on him for that.
CL: Exactly, everyone’s got to make a living, and everyone’s got different tastes, and there is a market there for him, obviously because he’s made a whole load of money out of it. But yeah, not for me either.
How would you compare your two albums alongside each other?
RJ: ‘Truckstop Souvenirs’ was done by Beaird music, Nashville, Larry Beaird’s Studio, and it was done with such Nashville session musicians like Derek Wells, If you just Google Derek Wells, he’s the guitar player of the year, the last couple years in a row. He’s played on, I think like 30 or 40 hits in the last couple years, not just country stuff, so he’s been a pretty hot player in town, and he was the guitar player, the session player who just happened to be there that day. You get who happens to be there when you have Studio time’.
We had a full house that day, like they had, the keyboard player, I think he played on some Rascal Flatts and Tim McGraw stuff. Larry, I mean, he owns the studio. He played acoustic guitar; he’s got a resume of his own. I mean, these guys could write a book. Every song was done in one or two takes. That’s how quick they do it.
Literally, they listened to the scratch tracks, and they just carved it out, they just come up with the licks on the spot. So that’s how that record was made.
It was my first real studio shot, you know, vocally, I was just very uncomfortable, I guess because I was just kind of going through the grinder. It was good because I learned a lot and it was just an eye opener, you don’t know how terrible you sound until they really break it down on a you and you spend three hours on songs trying to get it just right. I’m still proud of what we did, it was my first attempt besides my EP I did in Iowa, but I’m still happy with how it came out.
This last record we did, ‘One Last Two Step’ was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama with Billy Lawson at Wishbone Studio and it was more hands on, it’s like you’re on an assembly line. They’re like, right we got three hours 1-2-3 go. But with Billy and Muscle Shoals, we spent pretty much weeks on it, there’s just me and him and his crew. I was more comfortable. It was a more comfortable environment, and a less commercial sound. We had Clayton Ivey playing keys. I mean, he was one of the main game guys for recall. I mean, shit he played on every Toby Keith’s Number one. He played patches for Clarence Carter. I mean, if you just look at Clayton Ivey’s resume, it’ll blow your mind. It’s just two totally different camps of people, and writers and songs, and I wanted to make two different records. But I don’t know if they came across that way. But I hope they do
CL: Oh yes, they do definitely.
Will you’ll be revisiting that studio in the future or are you going to be the person that seeks out different studios, different producers, and engineers for different sounds?
RJ: I love Billy, I mean, Billy has become like a brother to me. He is a hidden gem. He’s one of the most talented if not the most talented studio writer, all in one person I’ve ever met. He owns the studio, right, he’s a number one writer, he’s a musical genius, he’s a word genius, and he’s also an engineer. He knows his stuff! He’s a fantastic guitar player, one hell of a singer. He’s the most copied demo singer out there, man. Daryl Singletary used a lot of his songs.
I don’t think I could go outside Billy’s camp right now. We’re already working on another record, maybe after that, I’ll consider it, and he’ll understand that we don’t want to do the same thing over and over again.
The first record with Billy was more like, it was just thrown together., I just met him that day, I was like, let’s just do some covers so then we threw through him, together with his crew, and we just kind of pieced it together, it wasn’t really thought out. But this next record is going to be more of a concept kind of thing.
CL: When can we expect that? I guess you haven’t even had a chance to tour ‘One Last Two Step’ properly yet so I guess that comes first?
RJ: Yeah, I would like to pay off this record first before I get into another one. When you’re talking about spending ten grand on a record, it’s not that much money compared to you when you’re spending $100,000 or so, but out of principle, I like to pay for what I do and I like it to pay for itself before I start another one.
We’ve got four songs tracked for the next one, but I would like to have probably 10 or under. I want to tour, I want to wait a year in between records, if not two because I don’t think anybody’s really digested this new record just yet. I’ve gotten certain reviews on it, but you’re right, I haven’t got a tour, so I can’t sell copies and I can’t promote it outside of the internet.
CL: Yeah, that’s been a real problem for artists, especially the ones that have released records in the last year, they’ve just not been able to have the chance at all with it and I think a lot of people have found that really frustrating actually. Obviously, the people that are buying the music are going to find that frustrating too, firstly purely for the lack of live music and secondly, because they’re going to want to hear these songs live.
RJ: Yeah, so whenever this pandemic is over, I’ll tell you, we’re going to go back out on a pretty extensive tour then.
CL: Is that the plan?
RJ: Yeah, I’m probably going to do 150 shows when everything opens back up and gets back to normal, maybe 100 shows a year kind of thing, but yeah, I’m going to do what I can, you know, but right now all of our hands are tied, you know? We can’t do what we can’t do you know?
CL: Yeah. So how have you been occupying your time since the pandemic started?
RJ: I had a daughter in January, right before the pandemic started. That’s a different perspective of life right there. So, me and my wife have spent a lot of time at home, I finished my basement, I’m a very DIY hands on kind of guy.
With the music thing I’ve pretty much been on tour for five years. What do I say to her, I mean, I’m playing three, four nights a week and just kind of get through the other days of the week to get to the show dates, and I haven’t really had a normal sleep schedule and healthy lifestyle I’d say but since the pandemic started, I’ve been running three miles a day since the summer, I’ve been eating a lot better. I’m getting to work on my project cars and tractors. I got to finish my basement in March and just getting to do some stuff that I just didn’t have time for or the energy. Yeah. Yeah, honestly, I have enjoyed my time off, I’m not sore about it at all.
CL: I guess it’s come at the perfect time for you then, you’ve had the time to spend at home and watch your daughter grow from day one to now, and those are days, obviously, that you’ll never get back, so it’s probably worked out really well for you.
RJ: Yeah, honestly. I really can’t complain. I’ve been very lucky, man.
CL: That’s great. Getting back to the songs again. Do you think you’re a prolific writer, are you always writing? Are you’re always looking for ideas for songs?
RJ: No, I hate to even call myself a writer, after hanging out with the people who I’ve got to hang out with, I mean, these guys have dedicated their life to that thing called writing and I’m more of a workaholic. I’m a workhorse, man. I’m going to get out of my car you heard about, whenever we’re done with this conversation, and go snow blow my neighbour’s driveway. I just like to be doing stuff and writing is a more meticulous task that takes a different type of thinker. It’s a different type of work, because you have to be indecisively decisive, and I’m not good at that. I like to have a plan, I go and execute my plan. Right?
RJ: With writing, like my buddy, Robert, he’ll write a song and sit on for two years, and then think about it for two years. I’m like, let’s write this son of a bitch in 15 minutes and call it a day, and get it done and get going, you know.
It’s two different things, I have an idea once in a while, that strikes me. You know, I’ve probably written less than 20 songs in my life and two of them are on the last record. But this next record is going to be a compilation of things I’ve written and things I’ve co-written, so it’ll be more of a judge on my character, I guess.
CL: Moving on, what’s your favourite show that you’ve done and why?
RJ: That’s hard question. I don’t know, I think it’s changed over the years, because starting out, it was more kind of like what’s the most energy we can get out of a show? Not like the best party, but we got a full band out and people are just going nuts over what you’re doing. I used to think that was the most fun. But then, as time goes on, you start realising that, no, that doesn’t really means anything, what means something is when somebody actually hears a song and they remember, and they listen to it on their own time, and it really touches them in a different way. You know, and that’s, kind of what I like. I like easy to listen to music. I was just listening to ‘Silver Tongued Devil and I’ by Kris Kristofferson the other day, and as I was reading about the record, and they said it was critically acclaimed, but it didn’t sell but it topped the Easy Listening chart, you know, and Folk chart, but I found myself liking that stuff more and more, after I’ve listened to the loud stuff for a while, but I also love Sturgill Simpson, man, I love his ‘Sound and Furry’ record.
CL: Which is of course is very very different to what Sturgill has done in the past and what he’s done. Recently.
RJ: I love it though. Fuck, it’s fantastic. If you listen to his new cut Bluegrass record, it’s just his catalogue, but it’s bluegrass. That’s always been.
He’s the best. I think overall, as an artist, I think he’s the most real, he’s the man, he’s the best, as far as I’m concerned.
CL: He’s certainly one hell of a musician, that’s for sure, and he seems like a really nice guy as well. It’s interesting what you said about sitting down and digesting the songs, because I think that’s where you’ll find, if you ever get to play over here in the UK and in Europe, you’ll find the audiences are quite different between the UK and the United States. I was going to say Europe, but I can’t really say that I’ve not had too much experience of shows in Europe, but certainly the shows I’ve been to in the US and the UK, and artists that I’ve spoken to have said that, we tend to pick up albums more and listen to those albums all the way through, know every single word to every song, whereas, the US may be a bit more singles-oriented market. I think you’d really enjoy the experience of live shows over in the UK. So hopefully, you’ll get to do some one day.
RJ: Yeah, man. Me and my wife went to Europe for 24 days on our honeymoon in 2018. We backpacked it. We started in Amsterdam, and we stayed in Aalsmeer, South of Amsterdam for like a week and we just kind of just walked around, you know, and, and we went everywhere, we went to France, into Paris, and we went to Dublin, Ireland. Then after that we went to went to Rome, of course and went to Florence for the last week. We backpacked everywhere, no suitcase nothing, just two backpacks and Airbnb everywhere, no hotels, no resorts, nothing. We rented a car in Florence a and the more people we met out there, you start to realise, first off how big the world is, and how kind people really are, you know. But yeah, you’re right, it’s different. I think some people are larger thought thinkers, I could agree with that. And I think that’s cool. Now, I mean, it’s like a book rather than a page, you know, rather than just like an article.
CL: One last question for you. What’s next for Royce Johns?
RJ: Retirement? I don’t know (collective laughter)
What’s next for anybody with this whole deal? The most money I’ve ever made from music, I’ve invested in real estate, you know, buying rentals and houses and working on and renovating them, I got my real estate licence last month. So, during my daytime, when there’s nothing else to do, I’ve been helping people build and buy homes and stuff.
I like doing different things, man. I do videography. I like to work on anything mechanical. I like reading about different things that I don’t understand like tax codes and stuff. I just read a book by Tom Wheelwright called ‘Tax Free Wealth’. The amount of stuff they don’t teach in high school is astounding, stuff that you should know as an adult. I think it’s all just as important as being musician and you should understand everything you interact with, to a certain extent. the more well-rounded you are the more options you have.
CL: Rounded is the word that I was just about to say. The more strings that you have to your bow then the more opportunities there are and, you know.
RJ: Feathers in your cap, son.
CL: Strings to your bow. Yeah, you need to have experience of other things just in case the music doesn’t work out or we get into a situation like now where your kind of forced to do something else because you just can’t do the music as you were before.
RJ: I used to look at it like this, I’m a musician and that’s what I do, you know, I’m going work as hard as I can a that’s going to be my life thing, then something like Coronavirus happens that no one expects. Then you have one or two options, you can sit around bitch about it and complain, or you can sit and write songs all day and possibly never do anything with them, or spend a bunch of money recording songs and play shows with people that don’t want to be there because you’ve got to wear a mask. You can do all those things, you can try to fight the system and try to do shows, I just feel like it’s such an uphill battle. It’s unnecessary for me. I think to myself you know what, I’m going to go out and do some other things. I’ve done this long enough. I’ve done it for, a fifth of my lifetime. I feel like I’ve paid enough dues now where if I want to go do construction for a couple months or just go do some other shit and get some other perspective in your life.
CL: I was talking to another artist, who’s actually from Nebraska, so next door to you, Tom Buller. He was saying something very similar actually a couple of months back because he’s done some construction and some carpentry work in his downtime. Do you know, Tom? You really should check him out. He’s the closest thing to Keith Whitley I’ve heard since Keith Whitley, he’s a fantastic singer.
RJ: Tom Buller?
CL: Yeah, he’s been releasing some bluegrass music recently. I think he’s got a country contract, and a Bluegrass deal. Yeah, check him out. He’s just a marvellous singer.
RJ: Is there a record you like?
CL: He’s only released the one country album actually, it’s called ‘When a Country Boy Gets the Blues’.
RJ: Right, he’s on my list, I’m going listen to that.
CL: I think you’ll be blown away by him. He’s something special. Maybe you could do something with him in the future, you’re both very much on that classic country vibe.
RJ: It’s funny that Country music is now classic Country.
CL: Exactly right. So, you have Pop or Bro country in one corner and then all the rest I think comes under Traditional or Classic.
RJ: And Rock and Roll is now Classic Rock and Roll. HAHAHAHA.
Cl: Well, Royce, thank you very much for taking the time to chat to us today. We’ll do it again some time!
RJ: Yes Sir, thank you too.