Nashville-based Kirk "Jelly Roll" Johnson’s distinctive, soulful style has made him one of country music’s top session musicians. Since moving to Nashville in 1984, Jelly has recorded with the cream of Nashville’s singers, including Trisha Yearwood, Kathy Mattea, Etta James, Anointed, Randy Travis, The Judds, Reba McEntire, Hal Ketchum, Michael Johnson and many others, for a total of over 50 gold and platinum albums. Jelly Roll performed "A Lover Is Forever" live with Trisha Yearwood on the 1996 Country Music Association Awards Show. He also performed on the CMA Awards show in 1987 with The Judds, and played at The Judds final concert for the largest pay-per-view television audience ever. In other words, he’s got the goods.
We asked Kirk the same questions we ask every pro whose profile we publish here:
- What are your 5 favorite harmonica records?
- What instruments (harmonicas) do you use?
- What amplification and other gear do you use, on stage and in the studio?
- What’s your discography?
Jelly Roll’s answers are below, and are bound to be of interest to harmonica players everywhere. We note in particular the importance of Paul Butterfield and Little Walter as early influences; these two players have influenced many of the top players who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, as shown by our Pro Page on New York session king Rob Paparozzi . We thank Jelly Roll for this gift to harmonica players worldwide.
Jelly’s Top 5 Harmonica Records
This is a tough question. I have to say I’ve been inspired and influenced by all the great players I’ve heard over the years. These are the records I learned the most from when I started playing in 1972.
- Little Walter "Hate to See You Go" MCA Chess CHD 9321 A collection of some of his great tracks from the 50’s. This record changed my life – Virtuoso playing and singing &a deep, deep soul!
- "Paul Butterfield’s Better Days" Rhino Bearsville R270877 This is the first Butterfield record I heard. Butterfield plays great emotional solos along with sweet, expressive fills behind vocalists Geoff Muldaur and Ronnie Barron.
- Charlie McCoy "Good Time Charlie" Monument KZ32215 – Hope this is available on CD) Bluegrass, Cajun, Ballads and Country from the modern country harp master. Includes his 2nd recording of "Orange Blossom Special"- about a zillion times faster than the first.
- Sonny Boy Williamson (Rice Miller) Blues Classics 9 These tracks recorded in Jackson MS for the Trumpet label in the early 50’s contain primal blues harp, especially "Eyesight To The Blind" and "Nine Below Zero".
- "The Paul Butterfield Blues Band" Elektra 7294-2 After being blown away by "Better Days", I went back and found this album, their first. Intense, fiery playing and singing. Most of these tracks and more are available on "Paul Butterfield Blues Band – An Anthology – The Elektra Years" with a great history written by Tom Ellis.
Diatonic: Diatonic: Hohner Marine Band, customized Marine Bands by Joe Filisko, and LaVoie Titanium Combs with Hohner MS Plates and Big River Covers.
Chromatic: Hohner Model 270 Chromonica, "Gardnerized" Hohner Model 270 & Model 280 by Dick Gardner, Model 270 Chromonica with John Infande comb.
For live work, I prefer a Shure PE50SP, a low impedance mic made in the 1970s and 1980s, handheld but "clean," direct through the sound board.
For an amp sound, I use a Sonny Jr. amplifier with four 8 inch speakers, or a Fender Super Reverb. I have an assortment of vintage mics (Shure Green Bullet, Silver Bullet, Astatic JT-30, and ElectroVoice 638).
In the studio, I record through a Neumann 87, 47, 67, or Sennheiser 421 mic. The new CD ("Jelly Roll Johnson and a Few Close Friends") was recorded entirely on a Neumann M49 mic with a Telefunken mic preamp. (Richard Hunter says: and it sounds about as good as it gets for acoustic harmonica, too.)