LIANE HANSEN, host:
Sure, he has been listed as one of the top 100 guitarists of the 20th century, and no less a god of the instrument than Eric Clapton has acknowledged his chops. But really, need we say anymore about Eric Johnson's guitar virtuosity than to note that his song, "Cliffs of Dover," is the ultimate and winning challenge of the video game "Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock."
Now, Eric Johnson brings those fast fingers to a new CD. It's called "Up Close."
(Soundbite of song, "Fat Daddy")
HANSEN: That's "Fat Daddy," off Eric Johnson's latest CD, "Up Close" - which features appearances by Steve Miller, Jimmie Vaughan, Sonny Landreth and Jonny Lang. Eric Johnson joins us now from member station KUT in Austin, Texas. Welcome to the program, Eric.
Mr. ERIC JOHNSON (Guitarist): Thanks, Liane. It's great to be with you.
HANSEN: Nice to have you here. And Austin is, of course, one of America's great music towns - the place where you grew up, the place where you started slipping in and then playing in clubs as a teenager. Tell us what that scene was like back then. Who did you see when you were sipping your Coca-Cola?
Mr. JOHNSON: Steve Miller actually played through Texas and Janis Joplin was doing stuff down on the coast and, you know, of course, Willie Nelson and Johnny Winters and, of course, Jimmie and Stevie Vaughan. It always seemed to be kind of, you know, you just - it wasn't that you took it for granted, but you just thought it might have been the general status quo for the rest of the world, you know. And then the first time I left Austin and actually went to L.A., I was like, wow, where are the clubs, where are all the bands?
(Soundbite of song, "Austin")
HANSEN: You actually have a tribute to your musical hometown called, appropriately, "Austin" on the new CD with the young bluesman Jonny Lang on vocals. Let's just hear a little bit.
(Soundbite of song, "Austin")
Mr. JONNY LANG (Singer): (Singing) I was born in Austin, on a summer day. Medicine from Georgetown made me strong on my way.
HANSEN: Lovely tribute to your hometown, Austin, Eric Johnson. You worked as a session guitarist for Cat Stevens, Christopher Cross, Carole King. What did you learn as a sideman that you now use as your own, performing self?
Mr. JOHNSON: I think you try to be a little discriminant about what you bring musically to somebody else's thing - where it's not about so much attention on what I would do for them, but how can I best serve their music and help put a little bit of proportion behind it. And that's always kind of been the name of the game whenever I do a session.
I think it taught me - and you know, and I still do it all the time, do sessions for people; I enjoy doing it - it puts me in a perspective where I can kind of help my arranging chops or my orchestration chops or how you can, you know, infuse whatever you do to just kind of lift somebody a little bit. And it also teaches you a little bit about being a little more detached. It becomes about their song or their music.
And you know, you bring what you can, but you have to stay a little bit detached. And I think that's therapeutic to have that perspective as well as the other.
HANSEN: I want to play a little more from the new CD, particularly a version of the old Electric Flag - I actually remember them - the song "Texas." It's a killer track. You have Steve Miller on vocals, and the other great Austin musician, Jimmy Vaughn, on guitar. And again, it's called "Texas."
(Soundbite of song, "Texas")
Mr. STEVE MILLER (Singer): (Singing) Well, I just got back from Texas, baby. Little girl, you didn't even know I was gone. Well, I just got back from Texas, baby. You didn't even know I was gone. When you saw me on the street now, baby, yeah, you treated me just like a Ringling Brothers clown.
HANSEN: Oh boy, that's a blues tune makes me want to order some barbecue. It's really sweet. But it's the only cover on the album. Why do it?
Mr. JOHNSON: Well, you know, it was like, a live thing. We just did it for fun. And I kind of wore that album out when I was a kid - "It's a Long Time Coming," the Electric Flag. Mike Bloomfield and Buddy Miles wrote that tune, and it was one of my favorite tunes off the Electric Flag record; always dug it.
(Soundbite of song, "Texas")
HANSEN: You seem to have a lot of influences. I mean, I'll be listening, and I think I hear Mark Knopfler. Or I think I'm starting to hear Steely Dan or -obviously - Eric Clapton. Were these the sort of influences you picked up while you were listening to all that music as a kid?
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, it really was. I mean, when I was a kid, my dad was into all types of music, and he was always playing me records from the time I was 3 years old. And you know, you can look in any style of music and find magic. And it's really that spirit behind the music rather than the style of music. Career-wise, I don't know if it's the best thing in the world to be kind of into different styles, but I think passion-wise or love of music or joy or sustaining your own investment in what you do - I think it's good, in a way, because it gives you a little wider spectrum to go to and stuff.
HANSEN: Yeah. Jimi Hendrix a big influence on you as well?
Mr. JOHNSON: Big time, yeah. It's because he was such a well-rounded musician. He was a real advocate of rhythm guitar as well as lead guitar. And through that, he was just a great arranger and orchestrator. It was about the whole musicality of it. And I've always admired that about him mostly.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Finding all it's meant to be with visions of eternity, pass the (unintelligible) inside, various disguise...
HANSEN: Well, certainly, the opening to that tune is very Hendrix-influenced.
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, yeah.
HANSEN: We're talking to guitarist Eric Johnson about his new CD, "Up Close."
This is your first recording in more than five years. Is that a typical musical gestation period for you?
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, it kind of is. I mean, I can take longer or less time. I've done both. I'd like to make more music and just let it happen a little bit more, you know, instead of belaboring over it too much. I mean, it's kind of like an arc and a wave. You know, you can reach the summit, and then the rest of it is kind of diminishing return. So you got to really get a reality check on where that summit is, you know.
And my intention, sometimes, is to go too far, you know. So, I'm trying to readjust that summit - where you go, you know what? This is cool right here. Let's go with that and float with that - and not worry about option number 460, you know.
HANSEN: I'm interested that some of the songs on this are really, quite short. I mean, "Awaken" is only 65 seconds; "Traverse" is a minute and 18 seconds; "The Sea and the Mountain," one minute 50 seconds. I mean, really, is - sometimes, the musical thought is just short and sweet?
Mr. JOHNSON: Actually, what that was, was a complete improvisation. And it just happened on the fly. We just pushed record, and just - play whatever I wanted. And the whole premise of those three pieces was to completely just play off the top of your head, just in the moment, total - 100 percent improvisation. And that's what kind of resulted of like, multilayering - of just the improvisation.
And then when it was all finished, it seemed to make sense to kind of float it in and out like in three segues, instead of having it be all one piece. So, that's how - it's actually the same piece, and it just fades in and fades out in three different places in the record.
HANSEN: Let's hear the first part, "Awaken," in its entirety.
(Soundbite of song, "Awaken")
HANSEN: That's the 65-second cut "Awaken." I mentioned that you collaborated with some terrific musicians on this CD, but I have also read that there are at least two other people you'd like to team up with: Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell.
Mr. JOHNSON: Oh yeah, among many others. I mean, there's so many people I admire and love but yeah, they were huge influences on...
HANSEN: Songwriting, I bet.
Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, just the songwriting. And yeah, Stevie Wonder, to me - I mean, he's, in many ways, I mean, you know, the Beatles and Stevie Wonder. I mean, that's it. That's the quintessential top of the whole pop thing 'cause it's just the beautiful music, and the spirit and the message of what their energy was, and frequency.
And I'll listen to them for my whole - it's an inspiration to last a lifetime, you know.
HANSEN: Speaking with us from KUT in Austin, Texas, Eric Johnson. His new CD is called "Up Close." Thank you so much, and good luck to you.
Mr. JOHNSON: Thanks, Liane. It's been a pleasure.
(Soundbite of music)
HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.