Photo of
Photo By Laura Roberts
Johnny Berry


COUNTRY UP: JOHNNY BERRY & THE OUTLIERS

By Tim Roberts

"Friends, the program which just came to a close was devoted to the classics. Doctor Damrosch told us that there is no place in the classics for realism. However, from here on out for the next three hours, we will present nothing but realism. It will be down to earth for the 'earthy'."

- George D. Hay, Producer of WSM Barn Dance, spoken after the performance of a piece simulating an onrushing locomotive on the preceding NBC radio network program "Music Appreciation Hour" on November 28, 1928, the night when Hay renamed the program the "Grand Ole Opry" live and on the spot.

He sits at the short end of the booth, face partly shadowed, partly flushed by a red glow from the neon beer light hanging in the window across from him. His hat sits square and straight on his head, the sides of its brim are pulled up to its crown. In front of him, an open bottle of beer, half full. He leans back in his chair, fishes a toothpick from the pocket of his wool shirt and tucks it deeply into the right corner of his mouth. Off to his left, pool balls smack together. One rolls into a hole with a dull plunk. One of the players taps his cue against the edge of the table. The air smells faintly of cigarette smoke and fried food.

"Got to meet Roy Acuff," he said in a deep voice cut with a mild drawl. "Now, his eyes were really bad. He had glaucoma. He grabbed ahold of me one night. He'd just heard me talk and he said, `You remind me of my dad.' And he started crying. It freaked me out. I was 19 or 20 years old at the time and here's the King of Country Music telling me I remind him of his dad."

We were in the back room of the Spring Street Bar and Grill in the Irish Hill area of Louisville, a neighborhood tucked between the Highlands and Clifton. One side of the building is on Payne Street, the low-speed-limit turnpike that bisects Irish Hill and connects the two other neighborhoods. The window where we sat looked out at the block of Payne that intersects with Lexington Road. Beyond it, a hulking empty warehouse that used to be part of the Irish Hill Distillery, now part of the underused Distillery Commons business office complex.

Thirty-five-years-old, a husband and a father, Johnny Berry was describing his years as a performer with the "Country Music, U.S.A." show that was one of the many attractions at Opryland, the theme park in Nashville that celebrated the Universe of Country Music. It was popular enough that it spawned a large hotel and brought the Grand Ole Opry from the Ryman Auditorium downtown to a new theater outside the park. If the Disney parks operated from the immense success of an animated mouse and his celluloid progeny, Opryland hoped to match that success by rooting itself in another American institution: country music. The park was demolished nearly ten years ago after Gaylord Entertainment, the company that owned the entire complex, Hotel-Opry-House-and-All, found that it was no longer making money. That it, indeed, had no business plan on how to make a return from the day it had opened.

In its place now: a large outlet mall. Some call it "Shopryland."

Berry continued: "So [Acuff] says, `Are you a preacher, son?' I said my grandmother thinks I ought to be, my mom thinks I ought to be, but I don't know."

In a way, Berry, with help from his band the Outliers (guitarist Steve Cooley and drummer Andy Brown) and songwriting collaborators, has become a preacher of sorts, one whose pulpit is most often a barroom stage and whose message is one of the truth that is revealed in authentic-sounding country music, material that's sounds more like what country music used to sound like than what now gets shoveled out of Nashville or Los Angeles and finds its way onto one of the thousands of Hot-Hawk-One-Hundred-Point-Whatever clones of the latest country radio format milled from the offices of Clear Channel.

Photo of From left, Steve Cooley, Johnny Berry, Andy Brown
From left, Steve Cooley, Johnny Berry, Andy Brown

"I guess it depends on the tastes of whoever's in charge," Berry said. "I know bottom line has a lot to do with it. And the bottom line is all about changing things, anyway. It's all screwy, the music business is. All you hope to do is not fall too hard. You kinda hope to parachute down."

With the release last year of Shoot! Darn! Yeah! and the forthcoming Fegenbush Farm, Johnny Berry and the Outliers appear to be joining the swelling ranks of the insurgents who want to flip off the Nashvegas establishment, who understand why the stalwarts like George Jones and Merle Haggard get little if any airplay on Hot Hawk radio, why the third generation of a country music family with the last name Williams and the first name of Hank is on the nightclub circuit and not filling arenas, why a whole subgenre called "Americana" was coined just so their exiled music could have some sort of classification so record stores would know where to put it. The country genre had been stone-washed and prettied up, sold with a live performance package that included onstage fireworks, choreographed dancers and the headlining performer swinging from a trapeze.

No longer was it relegated the realm of hard whiskey-drinkin' hombres and stages walled with chicken wire. Now it was safe for everybody. It was no longer the music Berry has listened to as a child and had sung on stage at Opryland, or that the band's drummer Andy Brown had played in VFW halls with his father in Nashville, or which guitarist Steve Cooley knew. As Brown said, "It's now just watered-down rhythm-and-blues with some yokel singing over it."

But for Berry, what country music now lacks is more philosophical than sonic: truth. And truth it is what he, Cooley and Brown are striving for in this project.

"To me," Berry said, "what makes things country has nothing to do with instrumentation. It's the knowledge to get across the truth. It has nothing to do with whether you've got fiddles or steel guitars on it. Everything that they consider roots music now, instead of sitting on the word roots, which makes you think of the past, it should be called truth music. That's the difference. You can handle the truth or you can't. It's about expressing truth or fantasy."

Like any quest, Berry's Quest for Country Truth has occupied a great deal of his life. Born in Flaherty, Kentucky, in Meade County just south of Louisville, Berry grew up learning how to sing by listening to his mother sing in Baptist and Pentecostal churches.

"She still has a great voice," Berry said. "She's a great singer. She's been a great influence on my music. I'm twangy-er than she is, though."

In 1990, a 19-year-old Berry saw an audition notice in the newspaper: Opryland U.S.A. was looking for talent for its upcoming season. Auditions were being held at the University of Louisville.

"I went in and did what I thought I had to do to get the job. I sang the lowest bass kind of song I could think of. An old Gospel, real-low bassy kind of thing. They hired me in a heartbeat `cause I figured they'd need a bass singer. I could hit those notes and I was young."

For four seasons, Berry sang and danced as part of Opryland's "Country Music U.S.A" show. It not only provided Berry a job, but it also taught a hard lesson in the one thing that too many spoiled young performers never seem to get: showmanship.

"You do the same exact thing for the 120th time, then you gotta go up there and pretend you like it. That's show business. On a hot day, when it's 98 degrees, you gotta realize it's for those folks who paid their money to get in."

Another benefit: learning to love old-school country music, meeting Porter Wagoner and Bill Monroe and having the aging Roy Acuff tell Berry he reminded him of his father, hearing their stories, discovering that in their struggles to make a name for themselves that they often worked in clubs for popcorn and peanuts, even after they had made it big, just to have the opportunity to play.

With all these lessons, Berry arrived in Louisville in 2000 and started playing Bluegrass with Hickory Vaught in regular shows at Gerstle's. Steve Cooley would join in the sessions on banjo. When Vaught couldn't continue the gig, Cooley took his place. After a year of playing Bluegrass at Gerstle's, Berry wanted to play some country again. Prodding him in that direction was his wife, Libby, "Knowing that's really me," he said.

It was at one show at the Hideaway Saloon performing with Cooley that Berry would meet his future drummer. Andy Brown, lead vocalist for The Roostars, was in the audience calling out Merle Haggard songs for Berry and Cooley to play. After the show, Brown told Berry that if he ever needed a drummer, call him.

That happened sooner than had been expected.

"I'd had another band altogether playing country," Berry said, "called Johnny B. and the Honky-Tonk Revival. Those guys were pretty good, but they had so many other gigs with other bands. We couldn't get dates lined up. So I called Steve and asked if he could play a Telecaster. He'd never played an electric guitar out anywhere. And I called in Andy Brown. Our first night we played at Barrettone's and if you were sitting in the audience that night you'd have captured one of the worst shows you'd ever heard."

The trio played as if they had never been on a stage before. "It was horrid. None of us really knew what we were doing. We'd never played with each other before. Steve and I were all on instruments we weren't used to playing. I had played rhythm guitar and had to go to a bass because I couldn't find a bass player. Steve was a banjo player playing Telecaster. And a lot of it had to do with getting to know our instruments."

Despite that first awkward performance, Berry and his band kept booking shows. More people started showing up when they played. Then they found a home base at Siedenfaden's Café, a haggard corner bar on an block of East Breckenridge Street that still has a Falls City Beer sign hanging from it. Six months after their initial gig there, 200 people now show up.

"I don't know how many fire codes that violates," Berry admitted.

A major bonus for Berry and band came shortly after the release of Shoot! Darn! Yeah!: an appearance on the National Public Radio game show Whaddya Know?

"The producers called me up last February and said, `We're coming to town, you want to play our show?' I had no idea who they were. I told somebody and they said I'd better get online and find out who they are. I did and found out they had a million listeners. They'd called the Courier-Journal and WFPK and asked who is it they wanted to represent [the city]. They said `You need to call Johnny Berry. He's just put a record out.' I got a huge response from that and moved a lot of copies of Shoot! Darn! Yeah! Did pretty good for an independent release."

With 200 people packing into a corner bar every time they play it and national exposure on a public radio program, thanks to recommendation from two of the city's major media outlets, what is it that Johnny Berry & the Outliers offer more so than other bands who play similar music? One answer might be the familiarity of his songs. "Every Time I Turn Around," the opening track of Shoot, is cut from country music's honky-tonk Bakersfield Sound made popular by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Another, "Liars Hall of Fame," is a long, drawling cry-in-yer-beer tearjerker. And another, "I Drive a Truck" is, well, about long-hauling loads up, down and across the country, even past Florence (Y'all), Kentucky and down to Nashville and the "big ol' outlet mall," the place that now sits on the property where Berry's former employer once was.

"I strive to write something that sounds like you've heard before," Berry explained, "but I guarantee you haven't. It's all about phrasing, it's all about vowel sounds. I hear so many people say, `My dad used to listen to that' or, `My granddad used to listen to that.' When I was young I didn't realize how good it was until I started playing it myself."

There's more familiar-sounding material to come with Berry and band's next release, Fegenbush Farm. Helping him out this time are other local performers such as Brigid Kaelin, Peter Searcy, Wink O'Bannon, Hickory Vaught, along with songwriting help from Gary Stillwell and Scott Mertz (currently with The Shinerunners and formerly of the country-raunch band Cornbread Mafia). Even with all the guest stars, the band is still built around its three core members. Kind of like a honky-tonk version of Steely Dan.

Berry credits the band's success to one thing: maintaining relationships. It is key to the lessons in showmanship he learned while at Opryland, why he was tapped to be the musical guest on Whaddya Know?, why he was able to acquire the talent to form his band and why he was able to bring in all the guest talent for Fegenbush Farm.

"If someone believes in you," he said, "they'll do what they can. All I need is somebody to hook me up with someone. Patsy Semmersheim, my manager, is the kind of manager who's good at meeting people and knows a lot of people. A lot of times she'll start the deal and I'll finish it. I'll make it to the plate and I'll get a hit."

Berry claims his "Holy of Trinity of Country Singers" consists of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. Performers, he said, who had a little dirt under their nails. Developing relationships, familiar-sounding music, recordings and an audience takes work and a dedication to expressing the truth in music. His experienced bandmates have that same kind of dirt under their nails as well. So does Berry, having once kept a smiling face in unbearable heat while performing onstage at an amusement park.

But all the work involved is only part of what keeps Johnny Berry & the Outliers together.

"We have fun. It's still growing. It's keeping that upward momentum going as far as you can take it. And hope you can parachute back down."

Get down to earth and hear the truth from Johnny Berry & the Outliers at www.johnnyberrymusic.com.