Satellite • 120 Greenfield St.
Fri., 4/6 • 9 p.m. • free
*Note: The Goat and Compass show for Johnson’s Crossroad was cancelled after press time. They are still playing at Satellite on Friday.
Like most folks, keith minguez was always intrigued by music. It has the ability to mimic the ebb and flow of emotions throughout our lives—or to change the way we feel entirely. A great rock ‘n’ roll track can thrust one from his sofa to a sold-out arena, dusting off Cheetos and throwing up an imaginary lighter. An ethereal strumming of the banjo is just enough to guide one’s mind to a serene river bank, cane pole in tow.
Minguez was a grown man when he first picked up the mandolin. He’d just heard John Hartford live at 1998’s Merlefest, and left the venue with a copy of Hartford’s “Aeroplane.” That same year he met Paul Johnson, his band mate and musical mentor of sorts, piquing his interest in playing.
“Paul was kind of the reason I wanted to play music,” Minguez recalls. “He was the catalyst for me to be able to do that, and I was just lucky enough that he was starting out, too, and he didn’t mind having a mandolin player who didn’t know anything. I’d graduated from college but [being a musician] was always a dream of mine—so I said screw it and followed the dream.”
Though the mandolin player’s degree didn’t call for late-night gigs in local bars, he pursued music anyway. By 2005, Minguez had uprooted his previous life in New Jersey, and replanted himself in Johnson’s town of Lewisburg, West Virginia. There, they formed Johnson’s Crossroad.
“You go from a job where you’re paying your bills and you’re doing whatever you think is normal—I went from having a savings account to being totally in debt,” Minguez says with a hint of amusement.“Strangely enough, I’m personally happy. If you’re able to not care, not have any kids or a dog or anything, you just don’t care that your student loans have defaulted—you look past all that, and you’re happy.”
To run away (screaming) from what is safe, only to chase down the tail end of a pipe dream, is something only few have the guts to do. At times, those who challenge their own fate still turn around with their tails between their legs. Though it’s hard to manage a band when adult responsibilities become obstacles in the road of success, somehow, Johnson’s Crossroad makes it work.
With Johnson on guitar and vocals and Minguez on mandolin as the group’s only true full-time members, they pull from the resources nearby. Now living in Asheville, North Carolina, they pick up any number of talented regional musicians to contribute to a live show or on a studio recording. When Johnson’s Crossroad ventures to Wilmington this weekend, Minguez says it’s likely they’ll feature Justin Eisenman on the stand-up bass.
“At the core of it, there’s a trio,” he explains, “[with] Corey McQuade on dobro and banjo as the closest thing to a permanent member. Everyone we play with in Asheville has other projects. Sometimes it’s a harmonica player we can pick up, or a fiddle player.”
With such uncertainty in the lineup—really, they’re relying on who’s in town that weekend—the set list changes almost every time they perform. “Most of the people we play with—even the core—have day jobs. We’ve all been doing this for a decent amount of time, so everyone understands. Everyone’s got a problem and no one really bitches about it; you make it work if you can.”
The band of mismatched yet talented musicians gives up a sound just as mind-boggling as their line-up. It’s classic rock and blues made with acoustic bluegrass instruments, and Johnson’s gruffy voice is nearly identical to Tom Waits. It’s like old-time pickers met up with Creedence Clearwater Revival to go on tour with Waits and Blind Willie Johnson.
“We have a lot of bluegrass instrumentation, but we’re not bluegrass—almost at all,” Minguez affirms. “Even the stuff that we do that’s close to bluegrass still isn’t considered [such] if you’re talking to the old men. I think we have a pretty unique sound, since none of us grew up on bluegrass, we’re really disconnected from that genre. It’s just a different world.”
Johnson’s songwriting, too, carries as much wisdom and trouble as Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” This unique brand is what they call “Appalachian soul.” It’s entertaining in headphones but surely raucous onstage, as the duo (err, trio, quartet, what have you…) is now a repeat act at Merlefest. They’ve also set foot upon stages at Virginia’s FloydFest, Nashville’s Music City Roots, and Bristol Rhythm and Roots.
Though it’s hard work touring when the boys are tied to day jobs, and the paychecks of musicianship have yet to balance the bills, the emotional payoff is much greater. “Being on stage is just a total cathartic release where you get actual, instant gratification in the couple hours that you play,” Minguez shares. “You seldom get that with other jobs; your gratification probably comes in spurts during the day. I actually get to have a release, get a little loose. It’s just nice being able to connect with your original material, to get feedback from your art right then and there.”
He says to encounter crowds of people clapping for their music is tenfold the fulfillment of any ordinary compliment. They’re looking forward to receiving that again at Merlefest and the John Hartford Memorial Festival this summer, amongst a slew of other shows. Their tour will land them at Satellite on Friday, March 6th.
“What it comes down to is that you just make no money,” Minguez says. “You really just gotta come to the conclusion, like, ‘Hey, look—I’m willing to be poor, and this could totally not work out, but it’s just like any other gamble.’ Everything’s a gamble.”