A bluegrass jam with sandwiches

Published: Friday, January 3, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 2, 2003 at 9:29 p.m.
The first thing I remember about Mark Johnson is the house in Dunnellon. It's a lovely home on a big, beautiful chunk of real estate in the middle of nowhere. Johnson's mother was visiting that day, and - despite my ethical objections on journalistic principles - she made sandwiches for me and the photographer.
She insisted, and - man, oh man - they were good sandwiches.
We dined in the kitchen overlooking the spacious back yard, which, Johnson told us, was plagued by coyotes. Big ole honkin' coyotes, too, not just the small, get-in-the garbage mongrels people mistake for stray hounds. The photographer was so intrigued he returned a few weeks later to photograph the beasts for a news story.
But as we chatted, cleared our plates and politely asked mother for more, it was easy to forget why we were there in the first place. Johnson, a mighty tall drink of water in boots the size of Yugos, could have been just another easy-going cracker eager to tell the local press about collateral coyote damage.
Then he picked up his banjo. Oh, yeah. THAT Mark Johnson. Even for a string-challenged doofus like me, the music produced from that local's clawhammer banjo was stunning. The bluegrass was tinged with jazz and other
Continued from Page 3 elements that mapped Johnson's unique influences. There was a technical ability that surely escaped me, but my untrained ears knew there was something special happening in this southwest Marion County living room.
I tell this story now - perhaps five years later - because my old friend from Dunnellon called recently to congratulate me on my move to Gainesville and, naturally, submit his latest compact disc for potential publicity. I get a lot of requests like that, and some of the music that comes across this desk doesn't quite merit the ink.
But "Acoustic Campaign," Johnson's recent offering with mandolin great Emory Lester, demands attention.
Again, I don't know my bluegrass from my crabgrass, but I do know Mark Johnson is the most talented radiological emergency planning coordinator this side of the Mississippi (his day job is with Levy County Emergency Management). "Acoustic Campaign" showcases Johnson and his one-of-a-kind Deering Ivanhoe five-string banjo with some original music and Johnson-arranged tunes (don't miss Vince Gill's "Hey God").
The disc is available through various Internet outlets, including Johnson's www.Clawgrass.com. And don't expect to see him much around Gainesville anymore. He's doing mostly national festivals. The closest his schedule comes to Gainesville (aside from work in Levy County) is the Withlacoochee River Bluegrass Jamboree slated for March near Dunnellon.
If the opportunity prevails, catch this guy while he's still a local with coyote problems (although, he noted Monday, growth has thinned the pack lately). In addition to Johnson's talent, he has friends in high places.
"You wouldn't believe what has happened with this one," Johnson said about "Acoustic Campaign." There has been the usual national publicity in the bluegrass media, but the disc landed a spot on columnist Dave Royko's list of favorites in the Chicago Tribune.
Shortly after our living room concert five years ago, we talked of Johnson's influences and his disc "Clawgrass," which featured bluegrass great Tony Rice. I was rightfully impressed. Then Johnson picked up the phone, punched some numbers from memory and handed me the handset.
It was Tony Rice, who spent the next five minutes telling me Johnson was simply one of the best musicians he had ever met.
I remember driving back to the office that afternoon, thinking - one day - oodles of people will be impressed when I tell them Mark Johnson's mother made me sandwiches before Mark Johnson played banjo for me in his living room. And, quite frankly, it's a crime if that day doesn't come soon.
Dave Schlenker can be reached at 374-5045 or scene@gvillesun.com.

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