Renowned Singer-Songwriter-Musician Johnny Neel
Brings the Blues to the Barns
By Jennifer Lee
Johnny Neel has enjoyed a long and prolific career in the music world, with eight solo albums and countless contributions to other releases: as the keyboardist and co-songwriter of the reunited Allman Brothers Band in 1990, and as recipient of several major awards including the Life Time Achievement Award at the 2012 GRAMMYs. On April 5, he will bring his special brand of the blues to the Barns in Berryville.
“I’m going to mix it up,” he said of the selection he will be playing that evening, drawing songs from his 2012 release, “Every Kinda Blues . . . But What You’re Used To” and his gospel-inspired “Harmonious,” among others, with styles ranging from hard-driving rock blues to a gentler, more soulful sound. Another feature of his performances involves a fun exchange, where a big bowl is passed around soliciting made-up song titles written on strips of paper from audience members. “Then I’m Johnny on the Spot! I come up with a little song with that title in it right there,” Neel explains.
Neel was born blind in Wilmington, Delaware, and began playing the piano at the age of 7 while attending a school for the blind. “You either had to tune ‘em or play ‘em,” he says. He got his first record deal at age 12, performing as Johnny Neel and the Shapes of Soul. “I didn’t know where I was going or what we were doing until I was there,” he recalls of that first visit to the recording studio. “I’m glad I didn’t choke!”
He moved to Nashville 30 years ago, where he has enjoyed musical collaborations with the likes of Dickie Betts, Greg Allman, Delbert McClinton, and John Mayall. In describing how he writes songs for other musicians, he explains that he almost always has a co-writer to bounce around ideas. “And you can’t get in (someone else’s) head too much. You get close, but you gotta stay honest. Once you chase the cut, they’re already on to something else.”
His inspiration for songs, he saids, “pops out of the universe. People might say something, we’ll be talking, and that gets me thinking. You don’t know what ‘the hook’ is until it just pops out.” Openness, authenticity, and spontaneity are characteristic trademarks of Neel’s inimitable style.
Opening for Neel on the 5th will be The Outpatients, playing original blues songs and covers from Eric Clapton and Little Feat as well as some old-time tunes. Neel’s cousin, Steve Cifala, plays guitar for the band. Neel says he’ll be performing solo, but will likely be joined by The Outpatients “and maybe some of those good players y’all got down there” for a couple songs. “I can’t wait to come and play down there with y’all,” he said.
Get your blues groove on April 5 at the Barns of Rose Hill. Doors open at 7:30, show starts at 8pm. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. Purchase tickets at www.barnsofrosehill.org or by calling 540-955-2004.