It hasn’t always been easy, but Bill Johnson has been working as a professional musician for 40 years, developing his own brand of laid-back, soul-thumping blues while living on Vancouver Island.
And he’ll bring his brand of the blues to Ladysmith this weekend when he performs at Concerts in the Park Sunday, July 27.
Johnson, who lives on the Saanich Peninsula, comes from an artistic family. His mother is Dorothy Oxborough, a well-known painter whose work can be found all across Canada.
“I come from a family where everyone played instruments and creativity was the normal,” he said. “I liked the guitar and was always fiddling with it. I had an uncle who had a Gretsch electric guitar, which is a guitar with a lot of chrome buttons and levers on it — very interesting for a little boy. My brother played a lot of blues, so I heard the blues constantly. He was a musician too, and he was 12 years older than me. This was 1968, and the blues had re-surfaced then. For those pivotal years of my life, I grew up hearing Muddy Waters and those famous blues musicians all day, every day, and it just stuck.
“When I picked up a guitar, I immediately heard someone play a blues song and I had someone teach me, and then I basically taught myself to play. That was 40 years ago.”
Johnson says that one thing that keeps him playing music is that it’s always fresh.
“You can always play the guitar when you’re upset or for any reason, when you’re happy — it’s always a place to go,” he said. “It’s always been a puzzle — every time I pick up a guitar, there’s something new to learn or a song to write.”
Johnson was nominated for a Juno Award in 2012, and he has earned four Maple Blues Award nominations in his career.
“That was a wonderful experience,” he said of the Juno nomination. “After 40 years of struggling to be good and 30 years of working professionally, as a blues musician, nobody gives you any kind of degree or you never pass a test, so it’s like I finally got my degree — there was proof that what I was doing was good. It has to be good to get a Juno nomination, I keep telling myself. It’s always hard to keep going in this business sometimes, and when I remind myself that I have these accolades, it certainly has kept me going.”
Johnson received a certificate saying he was nominated for a Juno Award, and he says that while he would have liked to have won the award for blues album of the year, but being nominated feels like winning.
“I think a nomination in a way is an award if they can narrow it down to five musicians from the vast number of people who apply or the artists who produce music, that’s a prize in itself,” he said.
Johnson, who recently played with Suzie Vinnick at the Vancouver Folk Festival, performs Sunday, July 27 during Concerts in the Park at the Transfer Beach Amphitheatre from 6-8 p.m., weather permitting.
Admission is by donation, with donations going toward the Ladysmith Resources Centre Association to offer programs to families in our community free of charge.