The Blues Journey
by CBA staff
While searching for the house of Oregon’s “Swamp Donkey” blues-band leader, Johnny Wheels, it was easy to get lost in the high hills around Willamina. But when finally meeting the singer/harmonicist, that ‘lost-ness’ evaporated. Johnny’s steady, blue-eyed gaze gives the comforting impression of someone knowing exactly where he is, and where his journey is taking him. And 25 years of propelling his own wheelchair around have given an upper body strength to back up that sense of a solid presence.
We’d promised him our interview wouldn’t last more than an hour. Yet, after two-plus hours of conversation, we apologized — we hadn’t factored in the time spent enjoying our laughter together.
Besides Johnny Wheels, there are two current band members who, in January 2020, were in the band’s line-up on the “Journey to Memphis” (to the annual Memphis International Blues Challenge): Brandon Logan (guitar) and Taylor Frazier (bass). Other past members in that line-up were Michael Rabe (guitar) and Doug Knoyle (drums). Out of hundreds of other IBC contestants, The Swamp Donkeys came in at No. 8! New additions to the band are Beth Poore (sax), Rich Dickson (keyboards) and Dennis Ayers (drums).
Johnny Wheels’ journey started early in life. He sat watching his dad’s band rehearsals with other men. Quietly. “If I made any noise, I had to leave,” he explained. Yet his high-tenor, musician father also gave him basic lessons on drums and some brief structures on guitar. But just when he was starting to get traction from those lessons, his father was killed at work in an industrial accident. Johnny was 6 years old.
“Yet that hurt more, because even then I really felt that my mother and my younger sister would need me to help the three of us.”
His father had left behind for Johnny both an elevated musical sense and a variety of instruments. Although he focused on the drums, it gave Johnny a chance to also try a bit of everything. And he let his singing challenge himself against what was playing on the radio: “Trying to match my voice to songs and then recording those to see if it was any good.”
“But playing around with the harmonica really didn’t do anything for me … um, I mean way back then anyway. Of course.” (Mutual laughter) He also benefited from his dad’s band friends checking in to encourage his musical desire. It was in such a wholeness of community that he grew up.
Yet a few years later, sadly at age 12, a grievous accident left him with his C5 and C7 vertebrae severely damaged, resulting in paralysis from his chest down. He spent months in therapy, both in Portland and at the Shriner’s hospital in San Francisco. At age 14 he was able to return to school and promptly looked for others to play music with. At 20, he was able to get others to join more seriously.
JW: I didn’t know chords very well, I don’t read music, I have no music theory training at all. So I just keep learning.”
CBA: Once, in an interview, Miles Davis said “I used to love playing the romantic melodies of pretty love songs. So, I stopped playing … romantic melodies of pretty love songs.” That sounds like the truth of artistry you constantly invoke: Don’t get comfortable? Continue to push yourself and just keep learning, moving.
JW: Yeah, if you’re not learning, you should quit playing. In my opinion, anyway. I mean, once you think you’re the best? What’s left? And a lot of people who think they’re the best never come to the reality that they aren’t. Even locally there are a handful of harmonica players I can show you who could leave me in the dust. In seconds. Those guys, really good. But they haven’t taught themselves they’re that good. They just keep trying to get better. That, is an artist.
It’s like when I met up with Nick Clark in Memphis, one of the nicest guys ever, very unassuming. And yet, when he picks up a harmonica he is just so good, he will blow you away. And still, he’s genuinely humble. He never tells you he’s good, other people say that about him. I don’t feel I play that much better than anybody else. When I go to see a show, I’m watching the other band to see how I could improve.
CBA: And finding the spot where you could fit that in.
JW: Yeah, and to me it’ll be a quite a while before I could agree with the people who tell me I’m “really good.” If someone wants to say that? I appreciate it and I’m grateful. Yes, I can play, but it still feels like a long road ahead. The journey.
CBA: When you and the band are on stage, it seems like you all are goofing around a bit, making jokes to each other. Yet still, there’s always the music on top that grabs the listeners.
JW: Yeah, it’s the same with all my bands, every version of my bands. You won’t be playing with us if you’re not sharing the fun, the joy of it.
So here’s my quick history of how I developed bands. When I was playing in Lincoln City it got to where that band was fading after the harmonica player died — a guy I idolized. I loved him.
Each show, I’d been allowed to sing a few songs with the band, but only singing. In one of the bands the leader said I needed to do more than just sing. So I started learning a bit of harmonica, watching Ronnie Shellist’s online lessons. But that band fell apart and the leader came to me to give the schedule he’d set for a lot of gigs. And he said, “That’s all yours, now form a band. I’m leaving and we’ve been the only show in town.”
So a guitarist helped me get a drummer and a bass and we started doing the gigs. And I got more incorporated as a singer and started playing some harmonica as well.
Then, closer to home, around 2006 in Willamina, a friend had a recording studio and needed a singer. So by getting myself involved, that became the first band that was my project. While still playing in Lincoln City. We did that for a couple of years, usually with a changing line-up of musicians: bassists, drummers, etc. I was singing and playing more harmonica.
My ass often got kicked because the musicians were usually 30 years older than me and really knew how to play. And weren’t going to just let some kid come in and take over. They were going to give me a lesson until I learned. So I stayed out of the way, and respectfully waited until they invited me to come in.
Sometimes I hear myself playing guitar parts, like Brandon’s. It’s easier than mimicking what another harp player does. Sort of a conversation. But it’s more about just the feel of those parts — finding the feeling.
A lot of it has to do with my disability, something I try to absolutely hide while we’re playing. My diaphragm is completely compromised. The injury is enough near the uppermost part of my spine that it limits my feeling and my movement.
And the lungs are still compromised, but working. I’ll run short of breath but when it gets too short, I’ll just stop and recover. I don’t really know what it’s like to breathe normally after being this way for 25 years. So I can’t tell you how I sing differently, yet I’ve also learned that not just my voice but also my body is an instrument, almost like an accordion. And you’ll see me doing this (bending forward and slightly sideways) to get projection, to get longer notes, to force howls and screams. It puts a strain on me to really, really work at this. And for that “machine gun” sound it’s not draw/blow, draw/blow, but just fast draws.
Harp players always talk about “tongue blocking.” I don’t know anything about it, I can’t do it and I don’t know if I ever want to learn. (More mutual laughter.)
So, back to the bands: I started wanting to play my own gigs. There used to be bands here in Willamina, or Dallas, or Sheridan, to go in and see all the time, every weekend. But that was gone by the time I was playing music. It had just died out.
So a friend and I started an act — acoustic versions of songs, mostly electric, that we liked and started doing them our own way. We played songs from RadioHead and Alice in Chains, John Fogarty, everything. Especially Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang.
I grew up on Van Halen, AC/DC, Motley Crue, Judas Priest. My favorite band has always been KISS. But Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s video of all the blues artists he’d met on tour was something I HAD to have, and I bought it the day it came out. That was a great revelation, even though all music has influenced me.
Anyway, that led to a venture with friends into songwriting. The one thing you always have in common, even with someone you really don’t like? Music will always touch your soul, always moves you in some way. I’ve only met a very few people who aren’t touched by music.
CBA: It can sometimes lead to the spiritual within us.
JW: Yeah, it goes way beyond all of us. Part of my blues upbringing was when in school I discovered Blind Willie McTell. His voice and style are so his own. Here’s him singing blues. (Taps a recording.)
(After listening) That … his voice! I’ve never heard anything that’s made me feel like that before. And that was it! I was in love with that music. And you can’t fake that, it’s a feeling. That down-there feeling of just keeping on anyway. After time going through things, I didn’t stop. So much there I couldn’t figure out. When I had the accident, I said put me in a wheelchair and just let me go, I want to get on with life.
I try to listen and learn by myself, but practicing is only done with others, and almost always only on stage. Applying what I’ve learned. That might not turn out good, but the next time’s always better.
Still, there are always those who’re much better than you. But if they look down at you because of that, they’re just bastards. That can be why choosing who to listen to, to learn from, is so important.
Oddly, one of the most uncomfortable things in the world is learning how to just be yourself. Maybe that’s why the band plays how we play. Our set-list? No set-list. Never.
CBA: When you search to find the right band members? What’s your first question?
JW: “Are you any good?” (Laughing.) Of course, there’s going to be some frauds and failures, but I don’t want to talk bad about anyone. It’s best when it’s someone I can learn a lot from, and who wants to learn from me. I’m not shy about telling someone “Hey, that’s not the right chord.” They may not like it, but it usually turns out I was right.
Also, I’m not going to steal someone’s bassist or drummer. But if it happens naturally? I’m going to roll with it. So that’s how Taylor joined us on bass. In the “Memphis” line-up, we’d met Brandon and Michael on guitar a few years earlier and their band was fizzling out, so we asked them to join us. And we got busy playing at lotsa gigs. Hey, after waiting forever to get this circle of really good musicians? Let’s just play songs we already know and that’ll be our only practice! And, it was.
Then Brandon and I talked about “Journey to Memphis.” He had tried with several bands that came up short. So we tried at Waterfront and lost to Fenix.
And yet, that’s why we started playing just the blues. Since then we’ve reopened a little. Playing everything, including country, but we love the blues and we’re good at playing it. And it’s not enough to just play the harp, you’ve got to SAY something with it. Still, I don’t want to sell myself. Just watch and you can decide for yourself. I don’t sound like anybody else.
CBA: Who do you regard as your mentors?
- Jim Belushi’s a good friend who got me with Dan Ackroyd (“a master class!”) and in three seconds with Jim I learned how to really be on stage!
- Rae Gordon, now on the National Board of Women in Blues.
- Ben Rice I’ve known for a long time.
- Drummer Tony Coleman and guitarist Ty Curtis both shared important advice for Memphis.
- And the under-appreciated guitar legend, Robbie Laws, must be included
The byword for us in PDX? “We’re different.” And because we’re ourselves, we stumbled into the final 8 in Memphis!
CBA: Quite a list! What do you see going on with blues now? And what can be done to keep it going?
JW: We see a lot more young people dancing to our music. And, well, the world right now is perfect for the blues, because that deals with sadness and despair. The blues can also be pretty religious and somebody’s gotta keep this stuff going. The world’s history is in the blues: We’ve all been slaves, we are all slaves right now to a monster that could probably destroy us. We need to unite together to listen to this music, just to feel better. I’d like to go back to small bars, 50 to 100 people, and sell tickets. Makes it easier to interact with the audience.
CBA: What else might you want to say about the “Memphis Journey?”
JW: An incredible journey, it really helped shape us. The Cascade Blues Association has been a big help, and with what’s going on with Greg Johnson, I hope to give some inspiration that you can just keep going. And keep fighting!
That’s what the CBA keeps doing. It’s the best for all of us. But we need to help it keep growing.