Dan Johnson’s father committed suicide in 1987. The retired military firefighter was injured after falling through a roof while on duty. He struggled with depression and mental illness after leaving the Air Force. Johnson was 11 and was forced to bear the burden of the loved ones whom his father had left behind. As a young adult, the singer/guitarist battled his own demons, and he very nearly followed his father’s path to the next plane.
After getting clean, the 41-year-old singer/guitarist dedicated his life and art to preventing veterans from taking what he calls, “The Hemingway out.” Fittingly, he’s just released a concept album, Hemingway, that includes five deeply personal songs and an audio book of short stories, co-written by novelist Travis Erwin, that chronicle various characters grappling with potentially life-altering decisions. A portion of the proceeds will benefit Operation Hemingway, a nonprofit online source that Johnson created in 2016 to promote suicide intervention.
The frontman of C&W mainstays Dan Johnson & The Salt Cedar Rebels said he was inspired to create Hemingway after visiting the author’s home in Key West four years ago.
“I was thinking about the larger-than-life character he was,” Johnson said. “At the end of his life, he went a little nuts because he couldn’t have anymore adventures. He took his own life.
“That also affected everyone around him,” he continued. “His daughter went on to take her life as well. It made me really think about my own dad. When he came back [from the military], he had a really hard time providing for the family, which caused all kinds of depression, stress, and anxiety. He felt a lack of self-worth.”
Johnson is about to embark on a 66-city tour to promote his soon-to-be-released album, and 100 percent of the tickets sales will be funneled to different charities focused on suicide prevention, particularly ones that serve veterans. An unnamed sponsor will be footing the bill for Johnson’s tour expenses.
“The next thing is to motivate people in the community,” Johnson said of his tour. “It’s your job to have the courage to intervene. Soldiers have the courage to risk their lives for your sake. Now you have the chance to stand up for them and stop something that could impact generations.”
Johnson grew up one of 13 family members who shared two singlewide trailers on a farm in the mountains of Western Kentucky.
“We were your very traditional, barefoot, overall-wearing hillbillies,” he said.
After his father’s death, Johnson’s mother moved the family to Kansas, where she had family. In 2000, Johnson moved to Amarillo for college. He was studying business and training to be a minister. While working at a mega-church in the Panhandle, Johnson was fired for questioning the motives of the church leaders.
“I had real issues with the way they were making money, and putting on the big show, and not really doing what needed to be done as far as educating people about getting out in the community,” he said.
He sent church officials a simple letter that read, “You preach your way, and I’ll preach mine.”
Since then, he’s used his guitar and voice to perform his style of preaching. After learning that more than 20 veterans a day commit suicide in the United States, he joined a local group of music teachers, Soldiers’ Songs and Voices, which travels to area VFWs and teaches veterans to work through their trauma and depression through music.
“We have them tell their stories, and we help craft them into songs,” he said. “That takes something so negative and painful and turns it into something pretty.”
Though his lyrics on Hemingway aren’t explicitly religious, they are poignant narratives that all deliver a different message. “The Favor” describes his descent into addiction; “Tom Waits for No One,” which features Cuban-style percussion and flamenco guitar, is about love lost; and on “Bloom,” cello, violin, piano, and viola set the sonic backdrop for a touching tale about Johnson’s three daughters.
The album was recorded at Camp Mabry Military Base in Austin, which houses a recording studio for military bands. Johnson and Adam Odor (Dixie Chicks, Mike & The Moonpies, Jason Boland) produced Hemingway, and Odor mixed the recording at his Yellow Dog studio in Wimberley. Phillip Tijerina, who helped engineer the album, did additional mixing and mastering at his Fort Worth studio, Voodoo Sound Design. The double-CD will be released on Dallas-based State Fair Records (Vandoliers, Pedigo’s Magic Pilsner).
Hemingway will be available for purchase on Friday, July 27, and Johnson will perform on Sunday, July 29, at Magnolia Motor Lounge. A song-swap featuring Jack Barksdale, Jackie Darlene, Larry Hooper, Hannah Owens, and Skylar Payne will begin at 3 p.m., and Dan Johnson & The Salt Cedar Rebels will take the stage at 5 p.m. The suggested cover is $5.
Dan Johnson &
The Salt Cedar Rebels
3pm Sun, July 29, w/Jack Barksdale, Jackie Darlene, Larry Hooper, Hannah Owens, and Skylar Payne at Magnolia Motor Lounge, 3005 Morton St, FW. $5. 817-332-3344.