Blake Johnson, Michael Martin Murphy, Travers Chandler, and Merl Johnson
This remembrance of the late Blake Johnson comes his former bandleader and dear friend, Travers Chandler. It’s hard to imagine a more loving tribute.
I met Blake Johnson when I was nineteen years old. I was trying to play the guitar and he was trying to play the bass. He was 16 years old, and even then his natural talents had manifested themselves through his amazingly mature singing.
I had known of Blake, but because he was four years younger than me, I had never gone to school with him. In Roxboro, NC you don’t hide much. It’s just that intimate, especially when it comes to bluegrass music. The place is loaded with musical talent (three pretty renowned banjo players are from there) and word gets around pretty quickly.
I was a greenhorn playing guitar for Lynwood Lunsford (one of said banjo players). Blake and his dad came up to Lynwood’s home in Axton, VA, and he auditioned for the bass slot. He opened his mouth and I was first exposed to the voice. I knew once I talked to him that we would be friends.
So here we are, nearly twenty years later trying to summon the words that would relate the love and respect I have for Blake Johnson.
He was all the characteristics you would look for in a friend, but I never appreciated until later just how much we meant to each other. He was with me during the highest and lowest points of my life, both personally and professionally. When I lived in town we spent a lot of time just talking and visiting. Of course we played a ton of music.
We spent untold hours playing bar gigs, then later countless hours on the road. We worked together here and there in James Kings’ band. And he was my bass player in Avery County. Mostly he was the guy who encouraged everyone to be their best.
The beautiful thing about Blake the musician was the absolute lack of ego. He really was the breathing cliche of the team player. He knew he was one of the few the gods blessed with a show stopping voice. Everyone did. It was no big deal to him. He would say, “I ain’t nothing,” or he would be busy trying to help the band sound their best. He could go an entire show and never sing and never even bat an eye. He was humble in his talent. So rare in the ego driven, showboat world of music.
There are so many stories I could tell. The all night frantic run to get our passports. The late night near-fight at a Georgia Waffle House. Hitting a deer on Wolf Creek Pass with his bass mounted on top and he wasn’t even there. The monotonous vehicle rides where we would roll with laughter. The love for his family, his friends, and his life.
When I signed with Patuxent Records I knew there was nobody else I wanted to sing with. Along with Adam Poindexter, the three of us could predict when we would breathe in or out, and could know every move we would make vocally. We were one mind. One heart, one soul.
I used to torment Blake. Practical jokes, ribbing, and always making fun of his inability to ever win a bluegrass history trivia game. However he didn’t need to be encyclopedic in bluegrass because he was a generational talent capable of drafting his own entry. His talent was that magnificent.
I remember when he called me and told me he was going with Alan Bibey and Grasstowne. I said they have a bass player. He said I’m playing guitar. I laughed and said you don’t even own a guitar. You can’t play guitar. We laughed. Then he went out and nailed that gig to the wall. When he joined Russell Moore & IIIyrd Tyme Out, I called and told him that I was so proud of him. He had finally found the elite gig he deserved, and I just knew the world would know just how great he was.
It was heartbreaking to us all when he became ill and couldn’t continue to tour. However in those moments a thing of beauty took place. He became an even greater friend, father, and human being. I was not sure that was even possible, but in the light of fateful dealings, Blake became an inspiration to me and anyone who knew him. He fought with the same voracity for life as he always had.
He may never have realized the impact he had on so many lives. When my father passed away he was the one there for me. I cried on his shoulder. He was as good a friend as I’ve ever had. We played a show the day my dad passed away. I was a mess. I had been up all night getting to the hospital only to be minutes too late. He stayed by my side the entire time. We sang. Afterwards he refused to leave me alone. As in so many instances he personified the true meaning of friendship.
But he was more. He was my brother, and the pain of knowing he’s gone is nearly unbearable. My love to his mom and his dad as well as his wife Amber and their two beautiful children. All of whom I’ve been blessed to know over the years.
I know Blake has found peace and I know he is singing the song of the angels. He should be well acquainted with the task as he performed it his entire life. He was our angel on Earth.
Rest easy brother…