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Evan Johns played a variety of genres—rockabilly, honky-tonk country, western swing, surf, roadhouse rock, and more—but it was the way he played those various styles that he was known for. His raucous edge got him a record on Dead Kennedys’ singer Jello Biafra’s label, Alternative Tentacles, as well as a Grammy nomination for his involvement with the compilation Big Guitars from Texas.
Born in 1956 in D.C., Johns played locally with revered musicians like Danny Gatton and Billy Hancock, along with his own band The H-Bombs, before moving to Austin, Texas in 1984. He died in St. David’s Hospital in Austin on March 11 at age 60. “There was an inner chaos in Evan that made his writing and playing combustible in a way that eluded most traditionalists,” says music scholar Joe Sasfy. “He could never walk a straight line and that had to do with his personality. He blew up everything he built.”
Raised in McLean, Johns learned a bit about music as a kid from watching his mother’s employer, the National Symphony Orchestra, but he learned even more from bluesmen like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt, who he would bicycle down to see at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and bring them cigarettes at their request.
But not all was fun in his life: Johns said he began drinking at 13 to deal with family stress at home and dropped out of one school in 10th grade, before eventually graduating from the private Emerson Institute in D.C. Shortly after, he started hitchhiking and train-hopping around the country with an acoustic guitar, playing for change.
Johns soon began playing in bands and writing songs. In 1978, he joined guitarist Danny Gatton’s group as a singer and backing guitarist. Johns’ song “Redneck Jazz” became the title track for the album, which also contained two more of his songs. The album’s diverse brand of Americana inspired Guitar Player magazine to dub Gatton the World’s Greatest Unknown Guitarist—and that acclaim bled into the careers of Johns and others in the band.
Musician Joel Harrison saw Johns in both Gatton’s band and other groups. “I met [Johns] when he was 16, and he was like already fully formed in his playing. It was weird,” Harrison told City Paper in 2015. “He started playing gigs when he was even younger than that.” Harrison said that “Evan was all about a solid groove and making a band rock. He wasn’t flashy. He once said that he wasn’t shy about playing with Danny Gatton, because he never felt inclined towards thinking he could come close to achieving Danny’s virtuosity. He was content to be himself. He seemed to have that self-assurance at a tender age. He was extremely knowledgeable regarding American music history. And he was a real showman. Not the retiring type at all! He was brash, funny, smart, and big-hearted. Can’t forget that last part.”
Six months after joining Gatton’s band, Johns left in search of bigger paydays. He sang with the Richmond-based Good Humor Band and joined rockabilly singer Billy Hancock as a standup upright bass player on a European tour. In 1980, D.C. was home to a number of rockabilly acts including Hancock and Tex Rubinowitz. Johns formed his own rockabilly-leaning band, Evan Johns and the H-Bombs, that year. With the H-Bombs, Johns applied his squeaky drawled shout to a blend of sped-up garage rock, zydeco, bluegrass, and more, and the band played everywhere, from bars to an opening slot for The Ramones within a three-year span.
In 1984, Johns moved to Austin to join The Leroi Brothers and stuck with them for two years before leaving to restart the H-Bombs in Texas. Touring the world in the late ’80s, Johns established a reputation for flamboyantly leaping on tables from the stage—and for drinking excessively. Hancock saw Johns play and says “Johns was a very aggressive rock player and he played with a lot of feeling and way, way, way too much volume. He kinda ripped the notes when he was playing but he was good. I never heard anybody play that style before or after.”
In 1986, Evan and the H-Bombs released Rollin’ Through the Night on Biafra’s label. That effort, along with their early out-of-print Giddy Up Girl EP, remain some of Johns’ most sought-after releases. Johns also recorded with others, including a 1987 album with Eugene Chadbourne, an unusual instrumentalist who often played an electric rake.
By the ’90s, Johns’ drinking caught up with him. His alcoholism would lead him into rehabilitation clinics and hospitals numerous times, and his struggles led to other health issues that eventually took their toll. When Johns returned briefly to the D.C. area in 1997, he told City Paper, “I’ve almost died many times… I was in a coma for 48 hours in Martinsburg, W.Va., drying out.”
From around 1998 through 2012, Johns didn’t do as much musically, but in recent years he released a few digital-only albums, including 2013’s Panoramic Life, 2014’s Somewhere Over The Skyline, and 2016’s Evan Johns Does The Great American Songbook, Vol. 1. Johns died in the hospital from complications from surgery. Biafra issued a statement calling Johns “a true American original” and added “[t]hrough it all, a lot more of that talent and soul survived than some folks seem to give him credit for.” Hancock, who had hoped to have Johns participate in a special project he is working on about D.C.-related music, noted simply, “I miss him very much. He was a character.”