“There’s no getting over gallows wine.”

So goes the refrain of the title track from Calvin Johnson’s latest release on K Records, “Gallows Wine.”

For those initiated into Calvin’s world of sound, the new album is a welcome addition to his discography. For those unfamiliar here are just three of his many credits: Calvin was a popular DJ/programmer on KAOS, the community-operated independent radio station in Olympia, Washington, as a teenager; in 1982, he founded K Records, one of the most forward-functioning independent record labels on the planet for the last 40 years; he curated what may be the most impressive collection of underground artists ever at the International Pop Underground Convention, Aug. 20-25, 1991 (seek out the compilation from that week of shows).

Then there is Calvin Johnson the musician. To mention all of the bands he has been in would take up pages. Johnny Vinyl’s collection has significant places reserved for Beat Happening’s unique pop presentation, The Halo Bender’s mutant duets with Built to Spill’s Doug Martsch and if there is an afterlife, the first sounds that would make sense have to be from Dub Narcotic Sound System.

Calvin’s solo releases can incorporate literally anything from the very traditional to the most avant-garde. One thing remains constant: there are no rules. Whatever serves the music and how he hears it goes.

Recorded in Columbus, Mississippi, “Gallows Wine” contains 11 originals that cover a lot of territory. Funeral dirge, rockabilly, country, sing-along pop and more all fit seamlessly together. The one cover is a percussion-drenched version of Gene Vincent’s “Crazy Legs.”

And then there are the four tracks that feature the melodica. The seldom used, mouth-keyboard has become a staple of Calvin’s and no one on the planet plays it quite like him.

Calvin said his unique melodica groove developed in the early ‘80s when KAOS-FM received a stack of 7-inch 45 rpm phonograph records from the Jamaican label, Rockers and Message. It featured the sounds and production of Augustus Pablo.

“As a programmer at KAOS, I was always checking the latest releases that arrived, the Augustus Pablo songs with the melodica entranced,” he said. “Later when Dub Narcotic Sound System started playing, Amelia Fletcher of the band Heavenly gave me a melodica while visiting the USA on one of Heavenly’s tours as she felt it was the instrument I was always meant to play.”

A big thank you to Amelia for listening to the universe on that one!

And the rumors are true — Calvin does indeed enjoy performing in this area.

“Pendleton, Oregon, has always been a highlight of any NW tour,” he said. “I’ve been privileged to perform in various spaces in Pendleton: house shows, art gallery, elementary school auditorium, the famed Great Pacific. Where next?”

Another quality vintage from K Records. Try some now because there’s no getting over “Gallows Wine.” For more about the musician or to order the record, visit bit.ly/3LTMXxa.


A retired educator, Johnny Vinyl spends his days with his two canine kids, reading and riding the vibe. His column focuses on music. Contact him via tmalgesini@eastoregonian.com.

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