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‘Is It Rolling, Bob?’: Remembering Producer Bob Johnston

August 18, 2015

This past Friday, August 14, the record producer Bob Johnston died in hospice care near his home in Nashville, Tenn. He was 83 years old.

More than any other single practitioner of that post, Johnston helped give shape, heft and durability to some of the most transformative American music of the past five decades, framing the sounds and intentions of an era — when invention was valued on par with accessibility; lines were confused and maps were being redrawn — and helping to foster a culture of autonomy and liberation for visionary artists that remains vital to this day, and continues to evolve.

As a staff producer for Columbia Records (and then as a free agent) Bob Johnston was a guiding force behind the artists on his watch — playing priest and lifeguard, counselor and agitator to such standard-bearers and upstarts as Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Leonard CohenSimon and Garfunkel, and The Byrds, to name a scant few.

On behalf of Cash, Johnston stood up fearlessly against Columbia’s executives — who had threatened both men’s continued affiliation with the label should they follow through with the singer’s outlandish desire to record live concert albums at the maximum security prisons at Folsom and San Quentin — albums that proved to be not only blockbusters both, but definitive statements in burnishing the heroic and populist image of the rough-and-tumble Cash and helping to transfigure his standing from country star to national icon.

Leonard Cohen, already a successful novelist and poet in his native Canada, nonetheless regarded himself a novitiate as a musician, and was skittish in the studio. His debut album for Columbia — begun by legendary producer John Hammond, then handed off to John Simon — had proved arduous and creatively unsatisfying to Cohen, who felt it too dense and over-worked, leaving him unsure he would ever make another. But he knew Johnston’s work and reputation, and loved country music; on a chance encounter between the two in Los Angeles, Johnston promised to find Cohen a log cabin to rent in the woods outside of Nashville. He pledged as well to fight the label for Cohen’s right to make the kind of album he truly wanted to, and to help him see it through.

Once in the studio together, Johnston pushed Cohen’s weary and soulful vocals far into the foreground, allowing each song’s story and its teller to trump the weather of whatever else might musically be happening around it. He insisted that the guarded Cohen fully inhabit his own authority as a poetic songwriter and transcendent performer. Following the studio sessions, Johnston was charged with assembling a touring band that could conjure in concert the mystic quality of the recorded songs, and said simply of his criteria that he wanted only, “people who look up — I didn’t want anybody looking down.”

To be sure, that says as much about Johnston’s musical ethos as anything could, favoring as he did musicians who were eager and able to disappear into the service of the sacred unnameable, who could abandon ego and trusted methodology in favor of real-time discovery.

For many of us, though, had Johnston only worked with Bob Dylan, our collective debt to him would be immeasurable.

In the summer of 1965, there was a riot going on following the release of Dylan’s breakthrough single “Like A Rolling Stone” that found the one-time folk darling marrying the personal and cryptic imagery of the beat poets with the gritty, sensual swagger of electric blues. But when the young singer/songwriter reconvened in Columbia’s Studio A on 30th Street in Manhattan a few weeks later — itching to expand his newly-minted and confounding revolution into a full-length album, following his historic and controversial appearance at the Newport Folk Festival over the weekend — Dylan arrived to find “Rolling Stone” producer Tom Wilson dismissed, and the amiable Texan Bob Johnston waiting coolly in his place. Gone too was the cast of seasoned stalwart musicians who typically populated a Columbia Records session, all having been replaced by a rag-tag group of young lions who proved to be every bit as ambitious and freaky as the singer himself. The resulting long-player — the groundbreaking Highway 61 Revisited — still stands as a mountain upon the landscape, and as enduring a symbol of that turbulent decade as the Zapruder film.

Johnston went on to helm the other Bob’s creative full blossom over the course of six albums — many of them masterworks, including the still-unparalleled Blonde On Blonde double set of 1966. He did so not by stern direction, but by — there is no other way to say it — surrounding the fuming songwriter with light and a steadfast love that allowed the artist’s full commitment to every ranging possibility. Johnston, in essence, barred the doors and threw his physical body into the path of any company naysayers, while his young charge turned the label’s studios, in New York and later in Nashville, from hit-factory into brothel wherein the ghost of Belle Starr might have entertained both Garcia Marquez and Howlin’ Wolf, each leaning in and leering from opposite ends of the divan.

Those of us who consider ourselves the fruit of such strange couplings will spend many hours in the coming days giving thanks for Bob Johnston’s life and courageous good works upon this earth.

May we all put a blanket on his bed.

Joe Henry is a songwriter, singer, recording artist and three-time Grammy-winning producer. In his work as a musician, he has collaborated with a disparate array of artists ranging from Ornette Coleman and Madonna to Bonnie Raitt, Harry Belafonte, Mose Allison and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott; from Bill Frisell and Salif Keita to Ani DiFranco, Solomon Burke, Bettye LaVette and Hugh Laurie.

He is also the co-author, with his brother David Henry, of the book Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him (Algonquin, 2013).

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