Johnson acknowledges the risk in cutting cover songs that could be too familiar to the public. "I understand that," he says, adding, "If you're going to do anything, the one we'd be more worried about is cutting an Osborne Brothers song. They're the best. Or a Flatt & Scruggs song. I don't think we sound anything like Merle Haggard on "Today I Started Loving You Again.' If anything, Terry sings more like George Jones (than Hag) whereas Haggard sang it straight solo all the way through."
With "Choices," "If you play it back to back, we cut it a lot faster," says Johnson. "We kicked it with a fiddle. You're very selective in how you play it."
"We weren't going to put it on this album either. That was recorded about a year ago for a drinking and driving project that someone was putting out and Rounder asked us to record. It went number one on satellite radio stations. That got that song to be on there...We love George, but there are only so many cover songs you want to do. That was one of the last decisions too to put that on there."
How did The Grascals decide what songs to cover? "We've been doing a lot of them live, and a lot of them were requested from our fans at our (merchandise) table," says Johnson. "'Today I Started Loving You Again' - probably every show we've ever been on, people always come up to our table and say do you have that Merle Haggard song on there?' and we say 'no no no.' We actually cut that song for the last album and didn't put it on there. We weren't going to put it on here if it didn't sound right...That last one just didn't have the same feel. We just completely went back in there and recut it. Sometimes the magic happens. There are different songs that we do real good in the studio and ones that are not...If it doesn't have the right feel, it's not going to make the album. It's just going to just lay there."
Johnson clearly holds the Osborne Brothers in great reverence. On "Keep on Walkin'," they cover "Can't You Hear That Whistle Blow." While Johnson says they put their own twist on other covers, that was not the goal here. "The only one that we stuck to the pattern on is a Bobby and Sonny song. We're not trying to beat any of their songs. We're just trying to do justice to their songs."
The Grascals themselves contribute two songs to the disc, the title track, which Johnson wrote with Charley Stefl, and "Indiana," penned by Johnson and Harley Allen, who also contributed the heartfelt "Remembering."
"That's why we depend on the songwriters from Nashville," says Johnson. "A lot of people have done that in the past, where I think that their album lacks. I don't want to be somebody who has all self-composed songs...There are so many great songwriters in this country. Why would you leave them off there like Harley Allen? Nobody would have heard 'Me and John and Paul' if we had tried to write all of our songs. I've had a bunch of songs that I've pitched to this band. Terry Smith's a great songwriter too. He's pitched a ton of songs too. It's got to fit our voices. It's got to fit our band."
Johnson says he co-wrote "Lonesome Won't Get the Best of Me." "I pitched it to our band, and they didn't do it. The (Lonesome River Band) did it, and it went to number one, but it fit their sound."
"We try and get our own songs on there," he says. "We really do, but we want to take a look at all of that other songwriting talent in the world and get that feel of some of the good traditional songs. That's what got us where we're at. Why not do 'Rollin in My Sweet Baby's Arms'? That's a fun song to sing. Flatt & Scruggs did it, so you can't go wrong...You got to share the talent, and don't be stingy with all your own stuff."
Johnson makes Indiana sound downright exciting in "Indiana." "When you just got cornfields surrounding you, some ponds and not a whole lot of transportation to get around, you create your own fun," says Johnson. "We had to make do with the what we had. If we were going to smoke some, we were going to take a leaf off the old dry cornstalk."
Johnson hails from Milan, Ind., hometown of the Boys From Indiana and the town made famous by the basketball movie, "Hoosiers." "There is one four-way stop, and there is a Dairy Queen now."
"It was great," says Johnson of life in Milan. "Just a family town. We had four kids in our family. We were together quite a bit around the house. Mom and dad both had to work at all times to make ends meet. My sister was six years older, so she was left in charge of us three mean boys."
"I was a nice boy," he says jokingly. "I just followed my brother Brad in the middle. He led me down the wrong path."
"We had our chores to do throughout the day...you had to keep the grass mowed and clean and do whatever had to be done....We spent time doing a lot of that stuff in that song...fishing a lot, swimming. We would honestly steal Ruby Burns' cigarettes. Her son Robbie would take them from her...We'd go down to the tracks and usually do mean things. We'd throw rocks at the train."