First released in late 1973 as a Columbia LP, Ever Changing Minstrel is a remarkable record in many ways — for one thing, the crack band that Johnston assembled behind the unknown songwriter included Mac Gayden, Charlie McCoy, Kenny Buttrey and Jerry Reed. The music was post-folkie country-rock that featured Wilson's virile but wounded vocals and Gayden's evocative slide guitar, and the songs were rooted in the harsh economic reality Wilson apparently knew first-hand. “Pay Day Give Away” is a beautifully written account of various scams, from pool hustling to card sharking, but Wilson addresses the song to a woman whose man is falling prey to this trickery: “Card shark, dealing his mark / To a payday giveaway in the dark / Lucy Ann, your man has been out ramblin' / What will he be bringing home to you."
The Cream caught up with Johnston to get his take on Wilson's record, and to ask the legendary producer about some of his career highlights. At 80, the Texas-born Johnston remains a proponent of the merits of catching the unguarded musical moment. Coming from a musical family — both his mother and grandmother were songwriters — Johnston got his break devising a hit record for Patti Page, a Columbia Records artist who was going through a dry spell. Johnston produced most of Dylan's Highway 61, and achieved fame working with the great songwriter on such albums as Blonde on Blonde and Nashville Skyline. Fans of Nashville's wackier side may not be aware of Johnston's superbly demented 1966 full-length, Moldy Goldies: Colonel Jubilation B. Johnston and His Mystic Knights Band and Street Singers Attack the Hits — it's an out-of-print classic filled with absurdist cover versions of '60s pop and rock 'n' roll tunes. He has also worked with Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Joe Ely and Loudon Wainwright III. In recent years, Johnston has kept his hand in record production with a few low-key projects, and says he's working on a book about his experiences. Johnston is outspoken, not to mention plain-spoken, and he spoke to us from his current home in Southern California.
Nashville Cream: Bob, let's start off by talking about the Bill Wilson record. When he showed up at your door in Nashville on that winter day in 1973 and asked you to listen to his songs, what happened?
Bob Johnston: He said he had one lung, and I said, “Go get another lung, and I'll work with you.” He looked at me so funny, and then I told him, I said, “Come on and let me hear you,” and I heard him, and I said, “Yeah, that's good enough.” So I gathered a band together and went in for one day and one night, and did the album.
NC: By that time, you'd been in Nashville for several years, right?
BJ: I came in the '50s. I was permanently there five or six times — I lived out where the Governor's Mansion is, about a block away from that, and I lived in Spring Hill, and I lived in Franklin, and all over the damn place.
NC: Your Nashville work is certainly respected and revered, Bob.
BJ: I thought I was hated there. I remember, [Columbia Records executive] Clive Davis wrote in his book, he said Minnie Pearl came over to him and said, “We can't have that kind of goin'-ons here, because he wants to erase everything here and do things different, and make pop records, and all like that. We need to get rid of him.” So Clive tried, but he couldn't. He tried to fire me. He was the fuckin' president, and he didn't want anything bad with Minnie Pearl there, and I said, “Fuck Minnie Pearl, and fuck you, and all those people. I'm not gettin' out of here, you'll have to bring a goddamn truck after me.” Right after that, I cut Dylan's Blonde on Blonde.
NC: After that, you made an interesting record with the musicians from the Blonde on Blonde sessions, Moldy Goldies. It's all cover versions of songs that were popular around 1966. How did that come about?
BJ: I got a bunch of those guys in there, and got 'em all stoned, and we played all night, and it was good. That was a funny record, wasn't it?
NC: Yeah, and the versions of “Secret Agent Man” and “Rainy Day Women #13 & 35” are hilarious, as if you're sending up the whole idea of pop music. It's ahead of its time.
BJ: I had just done Dylan, and “Rainy Day Women” and all that shit, and I thought, what a great thing, we'll use that band and get them all fucked up and take it sideways, and that's what we did. And yeah [sings], “Secret Agent Man.” That was the guy with [Elvis] Presley, who was screaming on that. I can't even think of his name, he was a — Lamar Fike, that's it.
NC: Who else was singing on Moldy Goldies?
BJ: I don't have any idea. I got these office girls to sing 'em, and a janitor, Lamar, and somebody. I just picked 'em random.
NC: You also produced Moby Grape's 1969 album Truly Fine Citizen. What do you remember about working with them in Nashville?
BJ: CBS said they'd give [Moby Grape] a quarter million dollars if they could get me to produce them, and they came over, and I said, “I can't do it. I'm doin' Dylan and Cohen and all that, I can't do that.” And they said, “That's the only chance we've got of getting anything. Isn't there any way you can help?” I said, “Go back and tell 'em I'll work with you, and I'll come over there every once in a while and work with you, and tell you different things and all, but I want you to do most of the album, and I'll come and help you.” They gave 'em the money and gave 'em the album, but I don't know what it turned out like.
NC: Bob Moore played bass on that album, actually.
BJ: I'll tell you a funny story about Bob Moore. Bob Moore came into the studio one day, and he studied karate from a master. And he came in one day, and [session guitarist] Grady Martin was standin' there, and Bob went, “Huh!” and put up his hands like that, and Grady knocked him down.
NC: During your days as head of Columbia's Nashville division, what kind of role did you play within the company?
BJ: They never had me in any fuckin' role. After Dylan did Highway 61 with me, I was in the studio in New York with Dylan, walking around the studio with him, and I got to where the speakers were, and I said, “Dylan, sometime you gotta come to Nashville. They got great musicians down there, and I took all the fuckin' clocks out, and tore the little rooms down where they had everybody workin' with wooden headphones, and put the drums against the wall, and put a 100-foot cord underneath the floor so everybody else could walk around.” Instead of puttin' Dylan in wood, I put him in glass, surrounded him in glass with little levers there, so they could talk to him and see him, and everybody could be together. And Dylan went, “Hmm.” He never answered you, just like Jack Benny. He sticks his thumb on his chin, and when he walked out of there, [Columbia executive] Bill Gallagher and a couple more guys were there, and they walked over and they said, “If you ever mention Dylan and Nashville again, we'll fire you.” And I said, “Why would you do that?” And they said, “Because they're a bunch of stupid goddamn people down there, and we don't want that.”
NC: So when you made those changes at the Nashville Columbia studio, you were looking for a more live, organic sound?
BJ: I wanted what I had gotten in New York, and what I'd gotten all my life. I don't think anybody does a better sound than me. I think my sound speaks for itself. I never wanted a [Phil] Spector sound. I wanted to go in every toilet in the world, and see what a good sound I could get from each of those toilets.
NC: When you went to work for Columbia in the '60s, you got your break producing a hit for Patti Page, “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.” How did that come about?
BJ: I worked for a guy named Bob Mercy, and he threw a record of Patti Page's, a Christmas album, on my desk, and he laughed like hell, and said, “See what you can do with this,” and walked down the hall. And I thought, “I'm gonna get that motherfucker.” So it took me about three months, and I finally came up with a song, and I went in, and he [Mercy] said, “I don't wanna do that — it's three people singin' about three people — and it's a horrible song.” I spent three days in L.A., and finally got her to do it. She said, “I'll do it in one take.” It was the first song I cut, and I cut The Pozo-Seco Singers, and some other stuff.
NC: You helped Johnny Cash do his Folsom Prison recordings at a time when, I've heard, Columbia was less than enthusiastic about the project — which, of course, did pretty well for Cash.
BJ: Johnny said, “I went to CBS, and they found out about it from somebody, and they told me if I did that, they they would hold me and give me a release and keep me for five years, because it's such a bad idea.” And he said, “I wonder if you have any ideas at all.” And I said, “I've got a great idea. If I were you, I'd go out and buy the biggest suitcase I could find, and I'd start packin' the motherfucker.” I hung the phone up in his ear. He called me about a week later, and he said, “Are we going?” I said, “Yeah, in about two weeks.” We got on an airplane, got in a car, got on a bus, went to Folsom Prison. As we were goin' along, we passed a sign there, and it said, “All spectators from this point on are subject to search.” And I looked up and Johnny was goin' through his pants and his coat, and I said, “What are you doing?” And he said, “Same thing you are.”