Recording and producing an album has its own set of challenges. With the rise of COVID and the global shutdown that occurred nearly two years ago, there were even greater obstacles to making a successful project. Derek Johnson guitarist with the popular Minnesota-based group, Monroe Crossing, rose to the challenge with Hard Life, joining him virtually speaking with many great musicians from Minnesota and Wisconsin.
As Johnson himself states in the liner notes, Hard Life is an album that “was recorded backwards.” Since the individual musicians couldn’t get together to record in person, audio files were sent back and forth, and the whole project was put together with minimal editing. Truthfully, it’s difficult to tell that the recording was done in this manner. Hard Life has such an organic feel to it. Although the musicians couldn’t be with each other in the same room, the camaraderie comes through wonderfully.
Hard Life has a nice even mix between original material penned by Johnson and cover songs. The project’s title track is a solid opener detailing the struggle of how to make it through each day. Texas is a straight ahead piece that features Derek on guitar and mandolin, Eric Christopher on fiddle, Anthony Ihrig on banjo, and Rich Casey on bass. All Points Bluegrass is the only original instrumental on the record. Johnson, along with banjoist David Robinson and bassist David Tousley, all bring great creative energy to their performance on this tune. North Dakota Wind differs a bit from the other tracks in that it has Johnson singing alongside mandolinist Clint Birtzer and Eric Christopher. As good as this song is lyrically, it has a lot going for it melodically speaking. The musicianship and the harmony between these men are sublime as a result. Ballad of the 1st Minnesota Volunteers which closes the album, tells the story of the 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment that was active between April 29, 1861 to April 28, 1869. It’s a nice ending and a good overall fit to this project’s theme.
As previously mentioned, there are several covers sprinkled throughout Hard Life. While some may be familiar to listeners, they aren’t songs that are terribly overdone. On top of that, Johnson brings his own fresh and creative approach to each one. This is most notable in his rendition of The River, originally recorded by Bruce Springsteen, as well as If I Needed You, written by Townes Van Zandt. On the bluegrass side of things, Derek Johnson does a wonderful job with Hazel Dickens’ Won’t You Come and Sing For Me and Bootleg John, which was popularized by Ralph Stanley.
As Johnson has suggested, Hard Life is an album that was slowly constructed digitally and virtually, and he “doesn’t recommend doing it this way.” With that said, the truth is that it’s a really fine effort, and an enjoyable one at that.