Will Johnson has been touring with his indie rock band Centro-matic for a long time — long enough that he has summer tour scheduling pretty much dialed in.
After his booking agent identifies the American cities Centro-matic will be hitting with its unique brand of alt-country tinged lo-fi pop, Johnson gets on the computer.
“I immediately hop over to MLB.com and start looking at the schedules to see who’s in town and what games I can go to,” Johnson says. “On nights off, I’ll definitely try to get to the closest park, and it doesn’t matter if it’s A-ball or ‘The Show.’ I’m just happy to get to a game. Without a doubt, it’s complete therapy for me and a real treat.”
On a solo tour four years ago, Johnson says he went to as many games as he played shows.
“I saw the A-ball team in Jackson, Miss., I saw a game in Pearl, Miss., on the way back, and I also caught the Montgomery Biscuits. I was just roaming through the South and went to a handful of games and it was great. I didn’t exactly come home in the black after all the money I spent on baseball, but I had a lot of fun.”
Johnson is such a seamhead that his personal notes on the band’s Web site, www.centro-matic.com, read like this: “It’s been a while, and that’s because I’ve been roughed up this summer by the heat, the inescapable white pants-ed and moppy presence of the Jonas Brothers, general ceremonies (opening and closing), and by being able to watch both live and archived baseball games on MLB.TV. It’s like they knew exactly what kinda Kryptonite would take me down, and good homeslices, it has.”
Meanwhile, Johnson has a huge list of baseball Supermen that he’s been looking up to since he was a kid.
He grew up in Southeast Missouri and took a liking to the St. Louis Cardinals, who gave him an early thrill by winning the World Series in 1982, the year before he and his family moved to Texas.
“I’m still loyal to my Cardinals roots,” he says. “Back in ’82, the buzz was pretty mighty and I was riding on a baseball high when I moved to Texas. I guess that buzz hasn’t worn off.”
Johnson also looks back to the privileged moments he experienced as a youngster when he got to see the bright lights of Busch Stadium in person.
“I remember seeing the Astros and Dodgers and the Giants in the Jack Clark days,” he says. “I had a Polaroid camera and I couldn’t stop taking photos. We had real good seats down low on the third-base line. We saw Ken Oberkfell and Ozzie (Smith) pretty close.
“For an 11 or 12-year-old kid, who basically ate, slept and breathed baseball, it was a real treat. I got to see the Forsch brothers, Tommy Herr and Bruce Sutter. It was great team to be so close to your heroes.”
Johnson’s current heroes thrilled him again in 2006, when he watched the underdog Cardinals pull off one of the most unlikely World Series championships in years by beating the Detroit Tigers
“It was truly amazing,” he says. “I was on Cloud Nine and I didn’t see it coming the way they seemingly backed into the playoffs. I had my doubting moments, which goes to show how little about baseball I really know.
“But I bought the DVD set for those gray days of winter, and it’s fun to sit back and watch it all over again because it was a good story. I was very, very proud of those guys. And that’s the beauty of the game. Stories like that keep me coming back.”
But those aren’t the only baseball stories that intrigue Johnson.
In addition to singing, writing songs and playing guitar for Centro-matic, which features Matt Pence (drums and percussion), Scott Danbom (piano, violin, backing vocals, bass) and Mark Hedman (bass, guitar), and fronting a side band called South San Gabriel (both of which are featured on the recent album called Dual Hawks), Johnson is a folk artist who paints his favorite baseball players.
His collection includes works depicting Negro League legends Satchel Paige and Cool Papa Bell, plus Bill Buckner, Alta Weiss, John McGraw, Branch Rickey and Roberto Clemente.
The colorful paintings also include written descriptions of the personalities from Johnson’s point of view as a fan and amateur historian.
“I like to paint some of the under-the-radar folks,” he says. “I think people should know more about their stories. Like Bill Buckner, for example. My painting champions his contributions to the game, which I think are long forgotten. Most people just remember him for one thing.”
Recently, Johnson opened his first art show at the Record Ranch Gallery inside Cactus Music in Houston.
Most of all, Johnson always remembers baseball and what it’s given him throughout his life.
He played shortstop until he “stopped growing” at the age of 14 and says he still has a heap of baseball cards in his parents’ attic. He also keeps scorecards (“I score every game,” he says) and has countless jerseys and a “ridiculous baseball cap collection that’s taking over my closet.”
And leave it to a songwriter to describe why he loves the game so much.
“I think it’s always just been the perfect pace of the game,” he says. “It’s such a conversational sport and one in which you can’t really can’t get too high or low day to day. In that way, it reminds me of how we live our lives as an independent rock band.
“We leave some cities feeling good and full of ourselves after a sold-out show, and the next night might be a thin crowd in a place we’ve never been. But the pastoral and poetic nature of the game makes it perfect.
“It’s the perfect game often played by imperfect people, that’s the thing that keeps me coming back to it.”
Here’s Will painting his sonic soundscapes with Centro (some artwork samples coming as soon as I figure out where they are in my email box):