The Kansas native had virtually no musical exposure until he attended the University of Kansas and became enamored of New Wave. In the mid-’80s, Johnston relocated to New York City and began writing songs and recording them on a four-track recorder, combining his love of edgy Indie Rock and his melancholy translation of heartland Folk. On the strength of a couple of demos, he garnered a contract with Bar/None, which released his debut album, 1990’s critically lauded and commercially ignored The Trouble Tree.
Johnston famously sold parcels of his family’s land in Kansas in order to finance his sophomore album, the powerful and evocative Can You Fly, which was almost universally praised and raised his profile exponentially, and in 1993, he released the Unlucky EP, which featured a stunning version of Jimmy Webb’s “Wichita Lineman” that was equal to (and in some respects, better than) Glen Campbell’s classic take.
Johnston then signed with Elektra and released This Perfect World; although “Bad Reputation” never even cracked the Top 50 of Billboard’s singles chart, the song had broad radio appeal.
The three Elektra albums that followed didn’t produce another “Bad Reputation” and Johnston and the label parted ways.
After releasing a live album and a demo collection with Bar/None and self-releasing 2007’s My Favorite Waste of Time, a cool covers compilation, Johnston recorded 2010’s Rain on the City, his first new studio album for Bar/None in a decade and a half and a beautiful return to form. In 2012, Johnston teamed with Jon Dee Graham and Susan Cowsill to form The Hobart Brothers and Lil Sis Hobart and released At Least We Have Each Other, and this year has found him working on a new album, Neon Repairman, which will hopefully see the light of day soon.To hell with counting hits, Johnston is simply a wonder.
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