Musician’s Spotlight: Kirk “Jelly Roll” Johnson

He plays harmonica. That’s his instrument and you can hear him playing on hundreds of records. I’ve known Jelly Roll since 1988 but when I looked at his bio, I was blown away by how many great artists and songwriters he had recorded with. It’s a who’s who with names like Tim McGraw, Alabama, The Judds, Kenny Chesney, B.B. King, the Gatlin Brothers, Alan Jackson, Etta James, Al Kooper, Reba McEntire, Kenny Rogers, Don Williams, Hank Williams Jr., Shania Twain—the list goes on and on. He’s played on over 50 Gold & Platinum albums, 3 of them Grammy winners, and in 2003 and 2008, he won the best Specialty Instrument Award from the Academy of Country Music. One of the finest harmonica players on the planet, the following is taken from a 25-minute interview at the Musicians Union Hall on Music Row in Nashville. Meet Kirk “Jelly Roll” Johnson:

Bronson: How old were you when you first started playing harmonica?
Jelly Roll: I started when I was 19 and before that I had played clarinet in the school band but I didn’t really apply myself to that. In 1972 I had a bunch of friends who were musicians and I decided I wanted to try to play something so I got a flute and I wasn’t really getting anywhere with it. My dad saw me struggling – he had always played harmonica just for fun, so he said, “Why don’t you try the harmonica?” So that’s where it started.

B: You moved to Nashville in 1984?
J R: Moved here in 1984. Cleveland, TN is where I started playing—which is close to Chattanooga—and then I moved to Knoxville in the mid-70’s and played a club gig there. Then I got a gig with Con Hunley, a great, great, singer, and he was on Warner Bros., and so I started touring with him. Started that in 1979 and continued playing with him, decided I wanted to move here and pursue trying to do studio work.

B: Everybody that comes to Nashville, somebody gives them their first shot. Who gave you your first chance in the studio?
J R: Well the very first was actually Con. He was doing a session with Kyle Lehning and so I just went to the session, mainly just to observe. I wanted to see how things went. They cut a song or two and then Kyle put this demo on and it had harmonica all over it, so he looks at me and says, “Have you got your harmonicas with you?” I said, “Yes, I do.” (laughing) He said, “Why don’t you play?” That session with Kyle was my first real Nashville session after I moved here.

B: Did you go around to all the producers and pitch yourself?
J R: I didn’t at first ’cause I didn’t really have any kind of track record. I was trying to meet as many people as I could. I was definitely letting everybody know who I was, what I did, what I wanted to do. I guess the next big break was when I played on that song of Con’s and I think I played on maybe a couple of others that Kyle Lehning produced. So one day I was in the studio with Con and Kyle said, “I’ve got this new guy that I’m producing and I think I’m going to try you on one of his records. His name’s Randy Travis.” As it turned out I did get to play on a couple of Randy’s songs on his first album, and one of them turned out to be the single, so that gave me a lot of exposure on the radio.

B: Was there anyone in particular as a harmonica player that influenced you?
J R: Oh yeah. When I started playing, of course I’d heard my dad play and I’d heard harmonica here and there, Beatles records, different things. I guess the first thing was a Little Walter record which just blew my mind and soon after, I heard Charlie McCoy’s first solo album which flipped me out too. Those two, probably my main influences then Paul Butterfield was a huge influence and also Sonny Boy Williamson was another. I’d say those four guys. Sonny Boy, Charlie, Little Walter, and Paul Butterfield were the main guys.

You can visit Jelly Roll online at www.jellyrolljohnson.com and listen to this entire interview at www.bronsonsmusic.com/kirk_jelly_roll_johnson.html

By Bronson Herrmuth