August 2019 Artist of the Month: Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson
Stack Your Stones

There are big voices and then there are BIG voices. Put Cameron Johnson in the second category. How big? Like John Gorka on steroids. Like a canon fired into a thunderstorm. If you don't already know this talented Arkansas musician, get thee to YouTube immediately and check him out.

First things first: When Johnson was first putting himself on the circuit he made a homespun promo CD titled Stack Your Stones that didn't actually have a song of that name among its tracks. It was mostly Johnson on guitars and vocals and his father, Bruce, on drums. This is a different project.

The song "Stack Your Stones" for which the new EP is named is a souped up version of "On My Own" from the promo. Somewhere along the line Johnson got connected with the right people. If you have one of the demos, you'll be struck immediately by how much more is going on in the new Stack Your Stones. The reworked title track opens with some vibes-like keys that set the table for horns, rock solid percussion, backing vocals and a big swell to the chorus. Check out how the horns drive the track, hollowing out for an echoic bridge, and then speeding us to the end like a semi making up for lost time. That's not to say Johnson is a man in a hurry. "Is There a Difference" is soulful and slow. The organ in this one suggests a bit of gospel influence, but the song itself is about disconnection: "Is there a difference between right and wrong/Cause I'm the last one standing when everyone's gone." Later he bemoans looking out the same window and seeing a different view. For all of that, Johnson prefers to take the back roads to explore the strength that comes from realizing others are on the same path. That message comes through clearly in "Let It Lie," which implores that letting go often reveals the ones standing beside you that can speed your journey home (however that is understood). Call it a big voice, tender heart kind of song.

"Somebody's Son" is another bring-the-noise arrangement. Johnson's vocal vibe is that of an arena rock singer still wearing his pork pie jazz hat. In the song he describes a downbeat character–whom we imagine as street person–as smelling "like yesterday's smoke." What a vivid image! But he also tells us that "He's easier to love/If you picture him as somebody's son." It's one of several stitched together bios that alert us that there are tales behind those on whom we'd slap quick labels. The EP is rounded out in a balancing way by "The Hunt," a piece of swampy Southern rock soaked in edgy mystery, clashing guitar work, and resonant vocals. For reasons you have to hear to understand, its abrupt ending is perfect for the song.

It's my understanding that Johnson intends to release another EP in a few months to bookend this one. If anything he does gets half the airplay it deserves, you won't need me to introduce you to Cameron Johnson.
Rob Weir


Loony 'Toons on Display in Rochester

The Art of Warner Brothers Cartoons
George Eastman International Museum of Photography
Rochester, NY
Through October 6, 2109

The George Eastman House in Rochester is a designated National Historic Landmark. It’s on the must-do list for visitors to Rochester. Eastman (1854-1932) was the founder of Eastman Kodak, once the powerhouse name in popular photography. Eastman made a fortune bringing roll film and inexpensive cameras to the masses and his home is well appointed, though aside from its main court, it’s not as grand as one might think for such a titan of industry. Beware if hunting and taxidermy offend you, as Eastman’s biggest vice was a fondness for shooting big game. The grounds are actually more lavish than the inside of the house. Speaking of interiors, Eastman was something of a mystery on the personal level. He never married, had no known girlfriends, and went into semi-mourning when his mother died in 1922. Such a sketchy biography has led some to speculate that he was gay, but there’s not much evidence for that; asexuality might be the safer bet. But, really, who cares?

If historic houses aren’t your pleasure, the grounds also contain a photography museum and archives. There are only small exhibits on the history of photography and the archives are not open for casual browsing. However, if you catch it right the changing exhibits are often amazing. That adjective is scarcely adequate for the current exhibit, The Art of Warner Brothers Cartoons. If you came of age during the years in which cartoons ruled Saturday morning television, this exhibit is a veritable trip back in time.
The Evolution of Bugs Bunny

I was never a fan of the Mickey Mouse or the sanitized Disney lineup; my ‘toon heroes were Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the rest of Warner Brothers' Loony Tunes and Merrie Melodies crew: Elmer Fudd, Porky Pig, Road Runner, Sylvester and Tweety, the Tasmanian Devil, Yosemite Sam, Road Runner, Pepe Le Pew…. Loony Tunes–especially Bugs and Daffy–had an edge to them and a propensity for nastiness that today’s helicopter parents wouldn’t allow Little Buffy to watch. I loved it all: the anvil on Wile E. Coyote’s head, Elmer shooting himself instead of Bugs, Tweety handing Sylvester a bomb, and so on. Bugs was basically Groucho Marx with long ears and minus the hubris, and my love of puns definitely began with Warner Brothers. Bugs Bunny episodes came with titles such as “Hare-um Scare-um,” “Hare Force,” “Hot Cross Bunny,” “Hyde and Hare,” and “Now Hare This.” Just reading the episode names made me chortle my way through the gallery.

Did any of the violence and wordplay do me harm? Well… I’ve never wielded a weapon stronger than a pun. I also heard a lot of classical music and opera through Bugs Bunny, who did through animated cels what the Marx Brothers did on the big screen in Night at the Opera; that is, take a wrecking ball to pretense and make the music fun in the process. (Nearly all of the cartoons released as Merrie [sic] Melodies featured music.) The Eastman House show is loaded with funny clips, cels, storyboards, and drawings. Warner Brothers hired legendary talent that must have had a ball putting a bomb to bombast; among them: Tex Avery, Mel Blanc, Bob Clampett, Fritz Freleng, Chuck Jones, and Leon Schlesinger. If these names don’t ring any bells, your history of animation education is woefully incomplete.

The Art of Warner Brothers Cartoons reminds us that cleverness is more than surfaces and gadgetry. Today we have technological marvels of computer-aided design, special effects, and sophisticated animation programs, yet there are no Saturday morning cartoons. I’ve been impressed by contemporary animation, but little that I’ve seen matches the wit, magic, and edginess of Loony Tunes. The geniuses on display at the Eastman House wove their spell at 24 frames per second. Given that the average cartoon was about eight minutes long, it took more than 11,500 individually drawn frames for Bugs to outwit Elmer and take the piss out of opera, theater, and everything else under the sun.

That, my friends, is true artistry. And, as Porky Pig out it,  tha… tha… tha… that’s all folks.

Rob Weir


This Tender Land a Masterful Mash of Twain, Dickens, and Others

This Tender Land (September 3, 2019)
By William Kent Kruege
Atria/Simon and Schuster, 464 pages.

Did you ever notice how works of fiction riff off of Huckleberry Finn? Aside from the obvious–Huckleberry Finn might be the elusive Great American novel–it's because the tale is part of Western culture's DNA. It goes back to Homer's Odyssey and its parameters probably predate him.

William Kent Kruege acknowledges his debt to Homer and Twain, as well as to Charles Dickens, Sinclair Lewis, and select slices of American history. He set out to write a Huck Finn-like yarn set during the 1930s but as all good writers do, he allowed his characters to take him to other places, hence there's a bit of Steinbeck in the mix as well. On the surface, This Tender Land is like a hybridized fruit grafted onto budwood, but it becomes something richer and more delicious.

Dickens is echoed early in This Tender Land. We enter the Lincoln Indian Training School, located along Minnesota's (fictional) Gilead River. The tyrannical husband/wife team of Clyde and Thelma Brickman run the school, the latter so nasty the children have dubbed her the "Black Witch." In theory Lincoln is a school for Native American children–tens of thousands of whom were ripped from their homes from the late 1800s into the mid-1900s and forced to assimilate to white ways–though orphaned and destitute white children also ended up at Lincoln. Think Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby and you're on the right track. Children are routinely sent to a solitary confinement, deprived of meals, beaten by cruel flunky DiMarco, forced to do hard labor, and some suffer even worse fates. The Black Witch is the bĂȘte noire of our narrator, Odie (as in Odysseus!) O'Banion, our 12-year-old narrator with talents for mischief, bad luck, storytelling, and playing the harmonica.

Odie is unlike his 16-year-old brother Albert, a mechanical genius, a crackerjack student, and a perceived goody two-shoes. Were it not for Albert and a kindly German groundskeeper named Herman Volz, Odie and his friend Moses Washington–a full-blooded Sioux whose tongue was cut out when he was very young–would suffer even harsher blows. Push comes to shove when a new Indian boy disappears and a tornado kills sympathetic teacher Cora Frost, thereby making her 6-year-old daughter Emmy an orphan that the Black Witch hopes to discipline and adopt.

The Twain part of the novel begins when Odie, Albert, Moses, and Emmy push a canoe into the Gilead with the vague notion of paddling to where it joins the Minnesota River, then onto its confluence with the Mississippi for a southward journey to St. Louis where, last they heard, the O'Banions' Aunt Julia lived. That's about a thousand miles and it's 1932, the cruelest year of the Great Depression. Although huge numbers of Americans are on the road–which provides some cover for peripatetic orphans–it's still a tall order for four minors. They have some money and papers from a safe, courtesy of some resourceful blackmail on Odie's part, but desperate times also means there are lots of equally desperate people on the road, including the Brickmans and their henchmen who are hell-bent on reclaiming Emmy. Huck and Jim faced all manner of perils as they floated down the Mississippi and so will our intrepid band of four. Like Huck, Odie is resourceful in amoral ways that sometimes make him a saint though he feels himself a bad luck sinner. Also like Huck, our "vagabonds," as Odie dubs them, encounter others with outwardly ambiguous morals: a farmer named Jack; a native man named Forrest; denizens of hobo camps; the Scofield family, who are Minnesota's answer to busted Okies (think Grapes of Wrath); and Aunt Julia. It is to Kruege's credit that he keeps us off balance, which is to say that many of the book's characters are as they appear to be, yet nothing at all as we expected.

Evil stalks the land, hand-in-hand with poverty. Who does one trust, if anyone? Can one linger in St. Paul, where Gertie Hellmann runs the Jewish equivalent of a soup mission? Do you cast your lot with Sister Eve and her traveling evangelism show? Kruege introduces spirituality into the book, but it too is malleable. Odie believes in the Tornado God, an Old Testament wrathful being, but Moses has a Native epiphany when passing through Mankato* and signs his "true" name: Amdacha (Broken in Pieces). Sister Eve is modeled on Aimee Semple McPherson and Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry, but maybe she's neither of these. Emmy has "fits" that may or may not be life-changing visions. Perhaps Kruege is taking us down a vaguely pantheistic path. In Odie's later year recollections he remarks that there is no single road to redemption and compares time and the universe to a river that might be God. River, Wakan Tanka, Jehovah… all the same?

What an enjoyable book! It's the kind that deprives you of sleep because you care so much about its characters that you just need to know what happens to them. It helps that Kruege's prose is eloquent as well as compelling. To introduce a small critique, the book's concluding chapters and postscript feel forced and overly tidy in the way that many rolling end-of-movie codas feel abrupt. Some might also read the book's religious ideals as New Age esotericism. (I'm still musing over that.) But the takeaway point is that in the hands of a skilled writer, The Odyssey is truly a timeless tale.

Rob Weir

* Mankato was the site of the largest single-day execution in American history. Thirty-eight Sioux were hanged on Christmas Day in 1862, allegedly for taking part in the Dakota War Sioux uprising. Many of them likely had no part in the war. The president refused to pardon them. His name was Abraham Lincoln!