Adding soul to country is so natural, so easy, so rewarding – and been happening since the 1960s, when by jingo they were also adding country to soul – that it’s a constant surprise it doesn’t happen more often. Their roots, in working class and religious communities, and their favourite subject matter – good and evil, sin and redemption, lust and regrets – fit as easily together as their sounds.
The Americana wave of the past decade or two which has revived interest in southern American music has intersected with southern soul too infrequently for mine. And the absence of that flavour has been even more noticeable in Australia, perhaps not surprisingly. Matt Johnston is proving one of the exceptions.
Like Justin Townes Earle or Ray LaMontagne, Johnston, aka Magpie, has a yen for the swing that comes from Memphis not Texas. The rough sax in When Love Comes (whose plaintive vocals may remind you of LaMontagne) and its smoother cousin in the very JTE-shuffle of Honey, the slow hip-dance of Wastin’ Time and the leaning in organ of Strawberries & Cream, may play off against country pedal steel or rock guitar but their roots are in soulful territory. And Don’t Give Up could, in the right hands/voice, be a drop-to-the-knees churchified ballad.
It’s not the only route taken by Johnston though. Sanctuary is very much a modern - post-Ryan Adams/post-Jeff Tweedy/post-Broderick Smith – Americana album, which is a good thing for many people (familiar tempos and sounds) and a dangerous pit for many artists (familiar tempos and sounds). There’s no way around that pit really except to make the songs feel like they’ve been written with some fresh energy.
There’s a link here too of course, with the Dashville label an offshoot of Johnston’s role as the founder of the alt.country music festival of that name which has played a big hand in sustaining the Americana/alt.country genre locally, for good and for ordinary acts.
If it’s true that Johnston isn’t blowing anyone away with these songs, it’s also true that he’s doing better than a number of his local contemporaries who know the style but can’t bring either compelling sense of the “real” or freshness. It’s only occasionally, as in Beetroot - which hugs the musical/arrangement clichés a little too hard – that he falls into the aforementioned pit.
But then something like If You’re Hurting, which is a song Broderick Smith might have sung with the Dingoes 40 years ago (and sung it better than Johnston does, but that’s no slight on him as Smith was then, and still is, a master) overcomes its sweet old time facsimile.
To anyone who frequents this genre you will recognise the way he can wind his way slowly through bared-hearts ballads such as Don’t Give Up (acoustic guitar and small choir) or loping mid-tempo songs such as This Spring (airy guitar lines and a bit of a warble) but never loses the urge to spring into Mumma’s Right’s modern country bustle or Irresistible Pie’s rip the throat a bit meaty honky tonk.
But that recognition is a comfort rather than a burden thanks to the songs holding up to sustained play. Who knows, maybe it’s the soul.