Northumberland has always had one of the UK’s proudest and most distinctive folk music traditions with many internationally recognised exponents. In addition to that, the southern boundary of the rugged and historic county - Tyneside - has a close affinity with, and a strong following for, American blues which dates back at least five decades to the halcyon days of the seminal Club A Go Go and visits by Muddy, Wolf, Sonny Boy and the like.
Slide-guitarist/singer/writer, Johnny Dickinson, from the county town of Morpeth, was subjected to both elements in his formative years and the resultant musical alloy has been burnished painstakingly ever since. In the early ‘80s, Kerrang magazine - a standard-bearer for blues-rock rather than roots music - tagged Johnny’s first band, Splitcrow, a “most likely to succeed” outfit, a view borne-out by an impending major UK tour. After moving to London he became a founder member of the influential twin-guitar and harmonica- powered (and multi-award winning) band, Paul Lamb & the Kingsnakes. Also in London he did stints on steel guitar with rockabilly band The Moonshine Boys. Ultimately returning to home turf to form the wildly eclectic Hillbillies From Outer Space – an idiosyncratic amalgam of all that had gone before, and then some !
Since 2004, Dickinson has largely pursued a solo career, a format he appears to be totally at ease with. Of course, it helps if the music makes a lasting impression ! His solo debut, Castles & Old Kings, certainly did that. BBC Radio 2 took notice at once, with Dickinson picking-up guest spots on the Mike Harding and Mark Radcliffe shows and, proving his versatility, recorded a live broadcast session for Paul Jones Blues show. UK tours with the Australian guitar-phenomenon, Tommy Emmanuel, then Kelly Joe Phelps and an Irish tour with John Martyn spread the word quickly. Followed by shows in Denmark, The Netherlands, Croatia, Italy, Germany, Poland and Austria with players like John Renbourn, Louis Winsberg, Jan Ackermann and Thom Bresh (virtuoso son of Merle Travis) among many others. Back in the studio, Dickinson fitted in a side project for the Northumbrian Anthology (an aural encyclopaedia of the region’s folk music) and the resulting album, Border Ballads, a composite of Johnny’s music and the words of the Victorian writer and poet, Algernon Charles Swinburne, was highly praised, winning MOJO’s Folk Album of the Month in the process.
The release of the all-original, English Summer (Hard Road Recording) which included the core of Kate Rusby’s band, coincided with his appearances at the 2005 Cambridge Folk Festival at the end of July and the success of his live performances there – on all three stages – was underlined by the fact that the on-site CD stall sold-out the entire stock of hundreds of copies of English Summer over just two days ! He was nominated (one of only four) in the Horizon category of the 2005 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and was chosen again, for Musician of The Year, in 2006 !
The momentum developed further by the release of Dickinson’s live album, Sketches From the Road (Hard Road Recording), in March 2006 and his choice of material was as eclectic as ever. He embellished his own songs with some real gems. KC Douglas’ classic, Mercury Blues, is slowed down to cruising speed. The baddest man in the West, John Hardy, is juxtaposed with two British traditional songs, Handsome Molly and Jock O’Hazeldine. Jackson C Frank’s opus, Blues Run the Game, gets a welcome revival, too. The Negro-spiritual, I Wish I Was In Heaven Settin’ Down (Long White Robe), a regular fixture in Johnny’s live set, is also on the album. The immaculate slide-guitar – evoking memories of Cooder, Lindley and the peerless Blind Willie Johnson – topped-off by full-ranged vocals is an irresistible package. This guy has nurtured the music he grew-up with but he is not afraid to play around with the form or tempo. Bluegrass, blues and folk with a Caribbean skank or middle-eastern edge, seering slide-guitar and vocal range to match.
Next up was his album, Hilo Town (Hard Road Recording). The record again showed-off his flair for arrangement. Using a tight band, he described his work as “ a collection of traditional music from England, Scotland, Ireland and America. As usual, I have arranged the material in my own fashion, drawing inspiration from many sources including Sol Hoopi, Elmore James, Gypsy-jazz, Celtic Pipers and Mariachi bands, Peggy Lee, Nic Jones and Martin Carthy.” Now that’s eclectic !
A five-month US tour with Andy McKee took him from Lakes to Louisiana and coast to coast and ensured that he visited first-hand many of the places he had been singing about for years. It won him countless new fans, too.
Johnny is currently recording a new album but you can catch him in the meantime at one of his gigs where he will surprise you all over again !