By Lane Claffee
September 18, 2018
To many in the North Carolina music scene, John Howie, Jr. is a name that doesn’t need an introduction. With a career lasting over two decades he’s proven to be something of a country music legend, from his time spent with bands like Two Dollar Pistols and the Rosewood Bluff, to taking up drumming duties in Sarah Shook and the Disarmers. His songs have even been featured on television shows and movies. But, despite his lengthy career, 2018 will see his first ever solo venture, an album titled Not Tonight, released through the Suah Sounds record label.
A collection of songs that Howie deemed too personal to produce under anything but his own name, Not Tonight is a somber recount of a relationship turning sour. The process of the record started in 2015, after playing a handful of material he had worked on for his then-girlfriend, who suggested the idea of development. Having been in the works for almost three years, Howie is eager to get it out to the public. “I really think this album has some of my best material on it,” he said.
The album is also a departure from his previous work. “The lyrics are far more confessional than anything I’ve done before,” said Howie. He admits that vulnerability doesn’t come easy for him. But you won’t suspect a hint of shyness upon listening even though Howie remembers the recording process as emotionally hectic. “I was making an album about a relationship that I was still in at the time, so it got a little weird round the home front on occasion, as you might imagine,” he said. “I remember one of the musicians, as they were leaving the studio, taking me aside and going, ‘Jesus. Are things really that bad?’”
The project is also new in terms of sound. While Howie is known for his straightforward, traditional style of country rock, this album is much more sparse and ballad-oriented. “I’m stoked to put something out that still sounds like me yet goes to different places sonically and lyrically.” he said. The album’s single, “When I’m Not There With You,” is as close as you’ll get to Howie’s usual upbeat honky-tonk style. It has hints of his unique take on the Bakersfield sound, under emotive and fraught lyrics such as “you don’t understand why it’s driving me crazy / you don’t give a damn at all / the boundary’s become hazy.” The track “Underground,” another highlight of the album, features Eric Peterson of Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, with a bit of twangy slide guitar, while Howie infectiously sulks, “I don’t think I’ll go to that bar today / ain’t nothing good happen to me down there anyway.”
As far as album personnel goes, Howie has brought together an all-star ensemble through connections he has made throughout throughout his career, including Dave Hartman of Southern Culture on the Skids, members of the Disarmers, and Rosewood Bluff pedal steel player Nathan Golub. “One of the really fortuitous things about the record taking as long as it did to make was that I had a lot of time to think about just who I wanted to play on what track, after I went in and recorded acoustic guitar and vocals,” he recounted.
Having been a part of the North Carolina scene for so long, he’s seen some things change, but many things have stayed the same: the same music clubs are still around and the scene is very supportive, so plenty of opportunities exist for artists both young and old. “I’ve gotten to share stages with a lot of my heroes, and travel around the world,” Howie said. “I doubt any of that would have happened were it not for the support of the scene here, and I see no signs of any of it slowing down.”
An authentic and established treasure of North Carolina music, John Howie, Jr.’s debut solo attempt is both a diverse installment in his honky-tonk repertoire, and an impressive encapsulation of his career up until now.
Listen to “When I’m Not There With You” from the album Not Tonight by John Howie, Jr.