In 10 Songs, A Pair Of Brothers Beat Tracks Across History

Aug 14, 2014
Originally published on August 14, 2014 5:35 pm

Ethan Johns' sophomore album, The Reckoning, follows the tale of two brothers as they travel across the 1850s American frontier. Johns developed the idea for the epic 19th century journey while traveling himself. Listen to Johns' story, and his music, at the audio link above, check out a hand-picked playlist of his favorite songs on Spotify.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. A musical journey through song now. A story of adventure and murder set across the American frontier of the 1850s.


ETHAN JOHNS: (Singing) There once was a boy from the lowlands. Thomas Younger, his name. Born of the summer rain.

BLOCK: We're following two English brothers as they trek west across America. The characters become the backbone of the new album from Ethan Johns. He's well known as a record producer. This is his second solo album titled "The Reckoning." Ethan Johns developed this idea for an epic 19th-century journey while traveling himself on tour. He'd take long walks after sound check and think about a character in a song he'd written years ago called "The Lowdown Ballad Of James Younger." He told me he couldn't get James Younger out of his head.

JOHNS: I started to imagine, you know, what his back story was. He came from the West country. I'm really interested in history - I'm going to ramble away here.


JOHNS: I'm just going to free float, it's just my the way my brain works. Some of my family go back to the West country.

BLOCK: And when you say West country you mean in the west of England?

JOHNS: In the West of England, yeah. And I've just started an orchard. So I just imagined these two brothers who were the sons of Orchard keepers in the mid-19th century in the West of England and, I don't know, the story just unfolded somehow.

BLOCK: So two brothers, Thomas and James Younger, how did you imagine them? What was the dynamic that you were creating?

JOHNS: Well, "Lowdown Ballad" is really about - obviously it's about James. You know, James leads a troubled life. You kind of get a lot about him when you listen to that song. You know, he's let's say a little misguided. I think he's suffering from some of the things that are quite present in today's society. I think this sort of greed and hunger for fame and fortune.


JOHNS: (Singing) You live like an outlaw in Northwest of Brooklyn. God only knows the things that you've seen. I wonder if you knew the trouble you were in if it led you to a life of hard trembles.

It's kind of that win at any cost mentality. He's not a bad person, he just wants more. So he ends up going to seek his fortune in America.


JOHNS: (Singing) So you came to Cali and what did you find? But it bore the mark still of treason. And full of the people that you left behind. And full of new rhyme and no reason.

I'm sure at that time, you know, the word would've drifted back - the streets are paved with gold, you know. So he goes off there and he just - he gets lost.

BLOCK: Morally lost?

JOHNS: Morally lost, yeah. He loses touch with it.


JOHNS: (Singing) But if we'll murder the trailing kind. I reckon it all comes out even. But you were bound for glory.

BLOCK: And Thomas is the younger brother and Thomas's role - how do you see that?

JOHNS: Well, I kind of tell the story through Thomas's eyes. When James leaves Thomas is left behind. And he goes to America to try and find his brother. So when he gets to the states he hears more and more disturbing stories about the trouble that he's getting into, you know, in his efforts to try and find James.

BLOCK: Can you point me to a song or a bit of lyric where Thomas is hearing stories about his brother James?

JOHNS: Yeah. There's a verse in "Among The Sugar Pines" where it's kind of the beginning of Thomas. He's starting to get worried at that point. Hey brother. Kick the dust from your heels. Let your spinning wheels rust awhile. I'll listen one time for the old days some things never change but you wish you could.


JOHNS: (Singing) I'll listen one time for the old days. And some things never change but you wish you could. Tell me tales of hardship and war. Of heartache that I'll never know. And take your time, let the river wind.

BLOCK: I'm talking to Ethan Johns about his new album "The Reckoning." Ethan I wanted to ask you a bit about your time growing up because you are the son of a legendary record producer, Glyn Johns, who produced everybody from Led Zeplin to The Who to the Rolling Stones, on and on. What was that like to have that world around you as a young kid and as a young kid who really was tapping into music. Starting to play really young?

JOHNS: It was incredible for me, obviously. I was definitely born with a love for music. I discovered a passion and a connection with music when I was really young. I played - every spare minute that I had I was playing drums when I was a kid. You know, my life was relatively normal. You know, my dad's a very straight, really straight, guy. There's no nonsense in the house. You know, so it wasn't like I grew up in a rock 'n roll environment if you know what I mean. And I certainly didn't know that the musicians that would come to the house were famous or household names. They were just family friends.

BLOCK: Well, Ethan, when you think about your own music and the music that your father produced, created for years and years. Do you see a lot of his imprint on what you do?

JOHNS: I think so. You know, I think there's something about the way we sonically present things there is a connection somehow. I don't know what it is - I don't really know how to describe it. But there's an ethos to the way he respects the music above and beyond anything else. That's something that I really relate to. You know, the way you make decisions. I think technology allows you to really, you know, defer the decision making process more than ever now really. It's extraordinary. You know, you can just record infinitely and not make a decision.

BLOCK: So we'll just fix it later?

JOHNS: Yeah, we'll fix it later. We'll decide later which guitar part we liked. Or we'll make a comp of the 30 versions that we've got and everything and some guy has to sit in a room for a day and listen to everything. And, you know, it becomes incredibly detailed. You're not focusing on the big picture. And I'm completely the opposite of that. I like to record live, I like to have all the musicians in the room and, you know, you perform the song the way you want to hear it. I mean, it's an incredible buzz. It's quite nerve-racking sometimes, but when you get it right and the band walks into the control room and you hit play on the tape machine and they hear the record coming of the speaker you know when you're on it. When a great singer nails a tune and the band are playing with him it gets into the fiber of their being and it changes the way they perform. And that's where the magic in music happens. That's sort of the goal when you're making a record, is you're trying to capture that lightning in a bottle.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Ethan Johns. His latest album is "The Reckoning." Ethan, thanks.

JOHNS: You're welcome, Melissa. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.