Just days after his 23rd birthday — and after three years of trying — Asheville-based singer and musician Caleb Johnson was crowned the winner of the 13th season of the “American Idol” competition. Less than a year later, he released his debut album. Now, just past the five-year anniversary of his television win, Johnson is releasing what he considers his true solo debut recording. Kicking off a tour in support of Born from Southern Ground, Johnson plays at The Grey Eagle on Thursday and Friday, June 13 and 14.
Johnson’s musical journey began when he was a student at Clyde A. Erwin Middle School when a friend and classmate loaned him a CD. “He let me borrow Queen’s Greatest Hits,” Johnson recalls. “And I was completely sold.”
The budding rocker’s tastes soon expanded to include Led Zeppelin, Rush, Black Sabbath and Van Halen. He kept digging, soon developing a passion for soul music: “Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Little Richard, Otis Redding … all that good stuff.”
Growing up in Asheville as the city developed its reputation as a hotbed of many musical styles was a key influence for Johnson as a teenager. “Being able to go downtown and listen to music affected me in a really big way,” he says. By the time he was 18, Johnson was playing open mic nights at Pack’s Tavern. In 2010, he joined the band Elijah Hooker as lead vocalist; one of that band’s first gigs was sharing a bill at Tall Gary’s with Andrew Scotchie & the River Rats.
By 2012, Johnson had already auditioned twice for “American Idol.” He was first inspired to get on the reality show after a freak accident. “I was run over by my own car,” he says with a laugh, “and I was laid up in a hospital for two weeks.” Immobile and bedridden, he watched a lot of television. When he saw “American Idol,” he thought to himself, “You know what? I could probably do that.”
Once recovered — and with the support and encouragement of his family — Johnson auditioned for the program. But it took three complete rounds of auditions over the course of as many years before Johnson made it onto the show. His father had to talk him into making his final try for the show’s 13th season. “I went and did it, got to the live shows and then won the whole damn thing,” Johnson says, giving all credit to his dad. “I probably wouldn’t be talking to you right now if he hadn’t encouraged me.”
In the wake of his win, Johnson was hustled into a recording studio to capitalize on his newfound fame. Looking back, he has little positive to say about that particular experience. “Testify was basically just product to be put out in the market after I won the show,” he says.
But some good did come out of the Testify sessions. Johnson established a working relationship with Nashville songwriter Blair Daly. Daly was Johnson’s co-writer for much of Born from Southern Ground. Together, Johnson and Daly have crafted a collection of songs that build on the influences of groups like The Black Crowes and other enduring heroes of heartfelt, high-energy Southern rock.
Johnson’s uncle — famed Nashville session musician and Asheville native Bryan Sutton — produced the record. “He listened to what I wanted and then helped make that happen,” Johnson enthuses. He characterizes the difference between Testify and the new release as “night and day. I consider Born from Southern Ground to be my first record.”
Johnson celebrates his local roots in the music video for the song “Born and Raised.” That video features Johnson driving his brother’s 1966 Mustang along New Leicester Highway. He doesn’t get to spend a lot of time in Asheville these days but keeps up with the local music scene as best as he can. He chooses two acts — Scotchie’s River Rats and The Broadcast — for special praise. “And for the most part, the musicians I use out on the road are Asheville-based,” he adds.
And after The Grey Eagle gig, a tour awaits. Asked about his plans, the relentlessly upbeat Johnson quotes Doobie Brothers-era Michael McDonald: “Takin’ it to the streets,” he says.
WHO: Caleb Johnson & The Ramblin’ Saints
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Thursday, June 13, and Friday, June 14, at 8 p.m. $15