Rawhide plays to tough crowd at Johnny’s
By Bob Ashenmacher, Duluth Herald staff writer
Parked in front of Johnny’s Bar in Superior on some nights is an old Comet Cyclone, red except for one black door.
The car has that sexy boxy shape; the sharp-edged lines of a mid-60s Plymouth Satellite that make it look like it wants to leap forward even when it’s just sitting there. Taped to its dash are Polaroids of the driver’s family.
Johnny’s Bar itself is a bit like the car: a little sharp-edged at times (the clientele leans toward grain truckers and sailors who are built like trucks and ships), and always exciting to be in. But it has the right interior touches to feel comfortable.
The touches include the “homemade pasties” sign above the bar and the TV above the pool table showing “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”
And the house band, Rawhide, the professional vehicle of ElDean Johnson. The 37-year-old singer-guitarist has seen it through many personnel changes in nearly five years at the club. He now has things pared down to his wife Linda on bass and Mike Badden on drums.
ElDean likes it that way. Apparently the crowd does, too: a hand-lettered cardboard sign by the dance floor warns, “Not responsible for any accidents while dancing with your shoes off!”
The stage is small, with a purplish fluorescent “black” light hanging above. The ceiling is so low that when ElDean jumps to end one of the faster numbers, his straw hat brushes it. The crowds are lively people from many walks of life. Plenty of grain truckers and sailors.
Asked to describe a typical Johnny’s crowd, ElDean says: “Well, they’re a fun-loving bunch. Sometimes they do surprising things, but they have fun and in the end that’s what matters.”
He laughs. “I know so many of them now it’s pretty familiar.” Like the trucker who often stops by on weekend nights to climb up on stage: “His specialty is Red Sovine songs. Always gets a big hand for ‘Giddyup Go.’ ”
Sometimes the strangers are a kick, too. There was the night a boatload of Greeks came in. “One fella gets up there and starts singing away, and we tried to back him,” ElDean recalls. “I couldn’t understand what he was saying and didn’t know the song. But he looked happy when he was through. Kept smiling, anyway.”
ElDean pauses. “I like playing at Johnny’s. You can go to work and watch the show, you know what I mean? It’s out there on the dance floor.”
Rawhide plays a mildly progressive country show, with some ’50s rock and any requests you care to hear thrown in. ElDean’s strong suit as a vocalist is moderately paced songs by the likes of Waylon Jennings, Moe Bandy, Gene Watson and the Gatlins. His smooth baritone has a nice way with ballads.
ElDean plays a slightly nicked black Fender Stratocaster. His guitar style is in the jumpy, snazzy manner popularized two decades or more ago by guys like Duane Eddy – an early idol – and Carl Perkins. On the rock-flavored things such as “Wipeout,” ElDean shows a Ventures influence. He likes to use a lot of echo and wah wah pedal – “my gadgets” – through his Fender Twin Reverb amp. He plays a mean rendition of Juice Newton’s “Queen of Hearts.”
Linda, who handles that vocal, is a blonde not much bigger than the Fender bass she plays. She sings plenty strongly, and shows a charming touch with things like Lacy Dalton’s “Takin’ It Easy” and Gail Davies’ “I’ll Be There.”
Mike the drummer’s big number is “Kaw-liga,” the tom-tom thumping Hank Williams tune. Sometimes when he goes on a run from snare to tom-toms he ends up where he’s going faster than the rest of the group. But they catch up quickly.
Rawhide is at Johnny’s only three nights a week. He has an upholstering business and he and Linda have a small son. “It’s almost hobby playing. And you know, I like it that way,” he says.
A lot more than in the early years. He was based in Rochester but spent most of his time in a station wagon and motel rooms. The groups came and went along with gigs throughout the nine states between Michigan and the Rockies. He cut an album in Nashville.
“The record company promptly went broke. The famous Nashville swindle. When I hear the name of that town my hair still stands up. But that’s all right. I still like the music.”
Eventually ElDean (“I know it’s unusual,” he says, adding “No idea” before asked why his parents chose it) ended up in Duluth. He played a number of years with the Country Gentlemen.
“I liked it all right, but eventually I was getting into things like Waylon Jennings and they all wanted to stay more traditional. They had steel guitar, you know. The sounds we wanted were different.”
So five years ago he used his CB handle to name his new group.
“I could tell you stories about my life,” ElDean says, “but you couldn’t print ‘em. When I try to think of ones you could print, that makes it tougher.” He scratches the stubble on his face.
“I could write a book.”
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