As a North Carolina native now turned Nashville resident, country singer-songwriter Johnson first began writing songs at age 16, finding an interest in old records from legends like George Jones, Lefty Frizzell, and Waylon Jennings. Although a skillful guitar player and excellent singer, Johnson has consistently felt the most natural when writing, his lyrics seemingly coming to mind before the melody. It’s no wonder that he’s been best represented by his aptitude for narration, weaving stories into his lyrics that effectively connect to any person that bothers to listen.
“Cumberland River ‘58” is another one of these stories, a classic murder ballad about the demise of an aspiring country artist who finds himself settled at the bottom of (you guessed it) the Cumberland River after becoming entangled in a love triangle. Johnson balances out the dark acoustic lick and eerie steel line with a crisp vocal that’s rich in wisdom and warmth. Whether intentional or not, the arrangement of the track alone mirrors the mood that the story provides: Johnson’s trusting voice pulls you in, while the mysterious aura of the remaining instruments forces you to hesitate and question Johnson’s intentions, waiting in suspense for a betrayal.
Nothing about this song comes close to your stereotypical “pick-up-truck-loving, beer-drinking” anthems we’ve resorted ourselves to associate with the country music of today. And as someone who doesn’t listen to modern-day country music all that often for that very reason, I found this song incredibly restorative to the genre’s traditional charm and grace, full of character and originality that I long to savor. Johnson has no problem effectively painting a picture for his listeners that’s packed with authentic substance, reminding me of the few modern country artists I actually do still care to listen to, like Tyler Childers and Sturgill Simpson, that make the genre as good as it should be.
Released late October, “Cumberland River ‘58” is just a sneak peak into what Johnson has in store for us, planning to release his first full record at the beginning of 2021. And if the rest of his upcoming album is anything like this single, it will no doubt be a success. I’m eager to see Johnson’s following grow, so that he can revive everything that country music had to offer.