"Days are long gone/when life was simpler/now the rat race rules/the mighty dollar quest/when you lose inside of what truly matters, time to walk a less traveled road,” singer songwriter Thomas Johnston sings on “A Less Traveled Road,” the lead track from his excellent album, 'Highway Signs and Highway Lines' album opener.
For a man who is starting his rock and roll dreams at a time when most hopefuls have decided to pack it in by now, these are words to live by indeed.
“I’m at a time in my life where I know there is a road ahead of me and there’s more road behind me,” Johnston says.
“I’ve been looking at the road ahead now that there’s this joy of making music in me. Getting back into music from my college days has just changed my life and given me this renewed joy and sense of purpose.”
Readers of this column would be familiar with the work Johnston did as one half of Beannacht, a folk duo he started with his niece Deidre Forrest.
Beannacht amassed a loyal following, sold a respectable number of discs, landed on a number of “best of” lists, and landed on a number of year-end “best of lists” (including mine). Johnston was in pre-production on the duo’s follow-up when Forrest announced she wanted to move on.
“She wanted to do her own music and didn’t want to do Irish music,” Johnston says.
“I hoped against it because I thought what we had was special. At the time we were getting a lot of radio play and there was this unbelievable buzz in the press for this unknown duo. I was already working on keeping that going, but it was not meant to be.
“She made her decision and I wished her the best. It hurt a lot and it still does but I still love her -- she’s my niece.”
Johnston had a choice -- mothball his rock and roll sideline business or double down. After giving 'Highway Signs and Highway Lines' a spin while driving around these last few weeks, this columnist is grateful he decided to drive on!
“I hold a black horror in my hand. Death is spreading across this land/doesn’t God hear our people cry? Doesn’t God see our people die?/Our little island at death’s door,” he sings on the pensive “An Gorta Mor,” a sad chant-like tune about the Great Hunger.
A simple song with a simple vocal delivery, it resonates like many others on this disc as a great Irish ballad that makes one wonder what would happen if the likes of Christy Moore caught on to the little melody.
Johnston is a courageous storyteller, unafraid to lay his soul bare on songs like “Grasping for Answers.” He sings, “I have a woman’s love; I have another woman’s scorn/I had the opportunity to watch my child be born/He’s now a young man with dreams/He has a vision that is so grand/He knows I’ll always be there to lend him a hand.”
“The words I use are Irish Americana,” he says when asked to describe the sound of the album.
“It’s a blend of traditional Irish with folk and Americana. Rather straightforward melodies with an adherence to strong lyric writing. What I have found out since it’s been out has been its wide appeal.”
'Highway Lines' has gentle brushstrokes of bluesy guitar licks, introspective songwriting and gentle delivery, making it a perfect easy listening companion of Irish tunes on a Sunday morning as you repent for sins at the pub the night before. The album is not only a creative triumph, it is a personal one as well.
“I was in the background with Beannacht,” Johnston explains. “I did mostly harmony and songwriting and was comfortable with someone else up front doing the vocals because she is such a great singer.
“When that ended, I was writing what I thought was good stuff and got a lot of encouragement in the open mic nights that the songs were valid and good enough. I got a standing ovation for ‘Sea of Love’ in this outdoor show I did. It opened up something inside of me, and now there is no more comfortable place than in front of a microphone.
“I’ve always been confident in my playing and songwriting but never my singing while I was in Beannacht. Recording this album and playing live on my own has changed all that.”
'Highway Signs and Highway Lines' is an immensely enjoyable ride, with an able songwriter and singer in Thomas Johnston behind the wheel.
Johnston will play the Spring Lake Irish Festival on May 18 from noon until 4 p.m., and Trenton, New Jersey’s Tir na Nog on May 29. To hear the album, log onto http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/thomasjohnston