Noted west coast fiddler Bruce Johnson passed away on November 20, presumably from complications of COVID-19. He was 67 years of age.
Best known to the larger bluegrass community for his time with Sawmill Road and the album he recorded with them, Bruce was a fixture on the California bluegrass scene, where he would be found at most every festival, fiddle in hand, and ready to play.
His long time friend, Steve Spurgin, tells us that Johnson had received a positive COVID-19 test result only four days before he died, and was discovered in the 5th wheel where he lived on the 21st by his landlord in Loomis, CA. Spurgin said that Bruce had initially received a negative test result, but returned for a second test when he began to feel poorly. He was waiting for some medication he had ordered when he passed, likely complicated by his ongoing problems with heart disease.
Born in Huntsville, AR, Bruce came out to California as a child with his family, already deeply immersed in fiddle music. His first home base was in the Orange County area, just south of Los Angeles. There he worked with Hot Off The Press, who performed regularly at the Red Vest Pizza in Long Beach, and a country group called Cheyenne which also included Spurgin. He was also a member of the Laurel Canyon Ramblers with Herb Pedersen.
His primary occupation was as a diesel mechanic, but was known as a true jack-of-all-trades. Steve says that Bruce “worked as a diesel mechanic for LA Freightliner most of his time around Los Angeles, but was also a journeyman carpenter, electrician, plumber, and welder. There wasn’t a thing you could come up that Bruce couldn’t do. And it wasn’t like he could just sort of do it, he was a master. He also worked on big boats and would get called out of the area to repair big diesel generators.”
His fiddle idols were Byron Berline and Stuart Duncan, both of whom first established themselves in California, and even performed with Berline as a member of the LA Fiddle Band. He also did a brief tour with Doyle Lawson to South America, during which time he became friends with Russell Moore who was in the band at that time.
In more recent years, Johnson had moved up to northern California, in the area near Sacramento, but Spurgin said he still spoke with him several times every week.
“Bruce was known as a brilliant fiddler, but he never made any recordings on his own. Never blew his own horn, ever. In fact he went the opposite direction, casting aside any praise that came his way with an ‘Aw shucks’ attitude.”
Over his 45 years in California, Bruce met and got to know nearly everyone who played bluegrass music, primarily by playing with everyone he met. He will be missed greatly by the community out west.
It’s hard to imagine a better tribute than this one that Spurgin offered. “Everyone enjoyed being around Bruce. They loved his music, his smile, and they loved being around him.”
R.I.P., Bruce Johnson.
Here’s video from a Sawmill Road performance in Switzerland in 2008.