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Can a storied Kansas rocker put his ‘Bad Reputation’ in the past and find a future in folk music?

Scott Rohr
Freedy Johnston at his official showcase at Kansas City's Folk Alliance International Conference in February. In contrast to other acts, Johnston took a curiously casual approach to the performance.

After moving from Lawrence, Kansas, to New York City, Freedy Johnston hit it big with his major-label debut album, and charted on the Billboard Top 100. The 'songwriters' songwriter' is now attempting a shift away from his rock roots.

Freedy Johnston was almost certainly the only musician at Kansas City’s 2024 Folk Alliance International Conference who once had a video in rotation on MTV. Yet the acclaimed indie-rocker of the 1990s didn’t feel out of place among the 3,000 attendees.

Instead, Johnston viewed the music industry’s most important convention for folk artists as “a job fair,” he said.

In his first time at the annual conference, Johnston hoped to impress domestic and international folk music presenters capable of sustaining his already lengthy career, and overcome bias from people who only associate him with his 1995 rock hit, “Bad Reputation.”

“It would be hard to tell the difference between me and someone else with an acoustic guitar, no matter what their appearance or their lyric content,” Johnston said from the lobby of the Sheraton Kansas City Hotel at Crown Center. “I think I fit in.”

Bill Brownlee
KCUR 89.3
Freedy Johnston proudly represented Lawrence, Kansas, in the lobby of the Sheraton Kansas City Hotel at Crown Center during February's Folk Alliance International Conference.

Johnston’s style and presentation have certainly evolved in the intervening decades, and changing tastes dictate he now often performs in solo acoustic settings.

But while ambitious acts meticulously rehearsed for the occasion, Johnston took a curiously casual approach.

During his 30-minute showcase performance in a hotel ballroom, Johnston worked without a setlist. And rather than featuring his best-known material, he opted for unlikely selections like “Sparky the Heroic Dog,” a novelty song he wrote in high school.

Only a delicate reading of “Darlin’,” a highlight of his 2022 album “Back on the Road to You,” demonstrated the profundity of his talent.

The song features background vocals from one of Johnston’s friends, Aimee Mann, the singer-songwriter who rose to fame in the 1980s with the band Til Tuesday.

Mann also created sketches used in an animated video of the song, about grieving parents.

The online publication Americana UK called the album “a gorgeous collection of guitar jangling summery pop music.” Appearances by Susan Cowsill, of the Cowsills, and Susannah Hoffs, of the Bangles, accentuate the breezy sound.

“If you're judged by your friends, I hope I'm judged well,” Johnston told KCUR.

Craig Grossman, a booking agent based in Minneapolis with Black Oak Artists, counts himself among Johnston’s friends.

“A lot of people have called Freedy a songwriters’ songwriter,” said Grossman, who has seen plenty of musicians receive big breaks at the conference.

“In the folk world, you could do one or two good size festivals and that can honestly set up your career for many, many years,” Grossman said. “Admittedly, it's not the same thing as when you're the new, hot thing and you come in and then everybody wants to be a part of it.”

Johnston was that new hot thing in 1992 when his second album, “Can You Fly,” was rapturously received by critics. The influential music writer Robert Christgau gave the album a rare A+ review in The Village Voice, and NPR contributor Tom Moon included it in his 2008 survey, “1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die.”

Marla Norton
Freedy Johnston
Freedy Johnston, 62, was raised in Kinsley, Kansas.

Johnston added to the album’s appeal by including his own backstory in the opening track, “Trying to Tell You I Don’t Know.”

“I inherited farmland from my grandfather and I decided to sell it right away,” Johnston said. “It was the land, the first house I lived in … (and) the house where I learned to walk.”

The sale bankrolled Johnston’s then-fledgling music career, and financed his move from Lawrence, Kansas, to New York City.

“I sold everything, you know… just to do this,” he said. “Just about the stupidest thing that anybody could ever do. It worked out in my case.”

In spite of critical adulation and guidance over the years from elite producers like T Bone Burnett and Butch Vig, Johnston, now 62 and based in Portland, Oregon, operates on the fringes of the music industry.

Even so, he isn’t bitter.

“My mother got to see me on MTV for a minute, you know? And I flew her to see me open up for Sheryl Crow — huge deal. The first time she'd ever been on a jet plane, all that stuff,” Johnston said. “So I backed it up, you know?”

Johnston backed up his legacy at the Folk Alliance International Conference this year with flashes of his unique talent. And whether or not he caught a break in Kansas City, he intends to persevere.

“I have to keep doing it, it's not really a choice. There's not an exit strategy,” Johnston confessed. “I'm a songwriter, you know? That's all I can do.”

KCUR contributor Bill Brownlee blogs about Kansas City's jazz scene at plasticsax.com.
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