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Album: No Place for Birds to Rest
Song: Penny On the Track
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Great music from Mary Johnson Rockers

By Rick Cornell (photo by Crystal Street), December 2008

Current Home: Carrboro, N.C.

Age: 28

Musical Influences: Gillian Welch, Neko Case, Steve Earle, Eric Bachmann, Patty Griffin, Patsy Cline, Nina Simone, Mark Kozelek, Innocence Mission

Artist Bio: Living in the shadow of the Smoky Mountains and, later, in the musical melting pot that is North Carolina's Piedmont. Being the daughter of political activist parents. Possessing a strong love for country and folk music, but also feeling comfortable in rock and punk circles. All of those things factor into the work of Mary Johnson Rockers as showcased on her second release "No Place for Birds to Rest" (almost a full decade removed from her undergrad-years debut). From the small-town stories Penny on the Track and Clara and the deep, daring Thanksgiving in Manchester Jail to mood pieces like Patsy on the Radio, the songs and music on "No Place for Birds to Rest" seem to echo all that's come before for Rockers. It's an album that involved many friends and that evolved over many years while, you know, life was going on: the CD release show for "No Place" was the same week that Rockers got her grad-school diploma.

CST's Take: A voice built for singing of lingering touches (check out her gorgeous Two Step) and songwriting skills built for the subtle but lasting detail.


Country Standard Time: You list Americana for the description for your music, so I'm going to put you on the spot: what's your definition of Americana?

Mary Johnson Rockers: I'm better with words when I sing them, not so much when I try to explain something like musical genre. But I'll try. In my definition, Americana is a big field where different, unruly (but beautiful) things grow. I guess it's a genre that embraces different musical roots of America, and the artists within in it can make their music a combination of what they like from those roots: country, blues, folk, rock. It doesn't necessarily limit where artists might want to go musically. Am I completely off track?

CST: What aspect of your music do you think most reflects your Tennessee mountain upbringing? How about your current home in the Piedmont?

MJR: I love Tennessee more now than when I grew up there. That's what happens when you leave a place and see from a distance all the special things about it that you can't find anywhere else. Songs from the mountains, country and bluegrass, have influenced me, but it was a gradual influence. I was obsessed with Patsy Cline when I was a teenager and just learning how to sing and, incidentally, she was born in Winchester, Va., and later moved to Tennessee like me. That state boasts some pretty strong women musicians, and I would associate myself with them any day. A lot of the content in my songs is directly from my experiences there, like the train going through Madisonville and the circus tightrope that my sister walks (literally).

But central N.C. is where I first saw my favorites like Patty Griffin and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at the Cat's Cradle (music club), concerts that changed everything because they made me want to keep writing and performing. It was the Piedmont where I was also drawn to music of all kinds of indie bands who seem to connect here. As a somewhat transient place that attracts people from all over, I also had the good fortune to run into some New Jersey-ites (Kate, Joe, and Dave with whom I formed the band Pawnshop Ruby) whose love of The Boss and The Beatles brought new music into my life. And with them I started playing bigger venues, at different hours.

CST: Which song on "No Place for Birds to Rest" are you most proud of lyrically, and which one are you most proud of musically?

MJR: It might surprise some people because I don't perform the song much, but I think Thanksgiving in Manchester Jail has the strongest lyrics. I wrote the song when my dad was in federal prison serving time for a nonviolent act of civil disobedience - an inspiring act, I feel - and we visited him on holidays. My emotions and observations going into those lyrics were straight from the heart. And I think, or hope, that people can feel them through the words of that song.

Musically speaking I'd have to say I'm most proud of Whippoorwill because it's a melody that matches, in my opinion, the sentiments of the person it's written about. It's different from my other, more predictable melodies, and somehow the music itself, not necessarily the words, sound like heartache to me. That's what C minor is for I guess.

CST: There might be some overlap with the previous question, but which song do you like playing most solo and which do you like playing most with accompaniment?

MJR: Long answer: It's the same song, Penny on the Track. I love playing it alone because it's fun, and I get into the performance as an individual. I can almost picture the train. With accompaniment, it turns into almost a different song - one that is faster, louder, and a crowd-pleaser. The short answer is solo, it's Wish You Away. With accompaniment, it's Sweetness.

CST: Okay, you even acknowledge the potential for confusion on your web page, so I have to ask: Do you have any stories about misunderstandings related to your name? Any club owners who were expecting a loud five-piece hard rock band?

MJR: I was warned that when I got married and adopted a second name that it could either ruin or make my music career. So far, neither has happened. But it makes for some good conversation. I was once billed as "Mary Johnson and the Rockers," and I wonder if people kept expecting the rest of the band to show up.


Mary Johnson Rockers's MySpace page