Deep Blues Godfather Chris Johnson Has Died

Barbecue pit master, vinyl records enthusiast, festival founder, and all around important individual to help keeping a distinct dialect of American roots music alive, Chris Johnson, has died. The quintessential fan turned organizer, through his various ventures, Chris Johnson became one of the most beloved and valued members of the Deep Blues community, and the country blues scene overall. His loss leaves a gargantuan hole in the world of roots music, but the legacy he leaves behind will live on from the vital work he did.

Chris Johnson founded Deep Blues Festival Inc. in 2006, and held the inaugural festival in 2007 in Minnesota. It grew to become one of the biggest alternative blues festivals in the world. When you think of “Deep Blues,” don’t think of B.B. King and Buddy Guy. Deep Blues drew its inspiration from the North Mississippi Hill Country Blues scene and artists such as Junior Kimbrough, R. L. Burnside, and T Model Ford epicentered in Clarksdale, Mississippi and nearby locations.

Fat Possum Records was launched to record and support the Mississippi blues scene specifically, and chronicle the music of performers like Junior Kimbrough and R. L. Burnside. The unique blues sound went on to influence artists such as The Black Keys, The Back Diamond Heavies, and country blues performers such as Scott H. Biram, Charlie Parr, Left Lane Cruiser, and Possessed by Paul James. Today, Deep Blues descendants like Cedric Burnside help shepherd the original North Mississippi blues sound into the future.

The 2022 blues album for Hank Williams Jr. called Rich White Honky Blues produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys is a good example of this alternative blues sound that is much more raw and unpolished compared to more commercial and traditional blues styles.

The Deep Blues Festival became the first live event to try and offer national support to Deep Blues artists. The original Deep Blues Festival ran until 2010 before financial concerns did the gathering in. But in 2010, Chris Johnson opened Bayport BBQ in Bayport, Minnesota, which along with being an award-winning eatery, also dubbed as a live music venue where scores of artists from the Deep Blues scene to underground and independent country would play to a supportive audience, and eat their fill.

Chris Johnson retired Bayport BBQ in 2018, but remained very active in the Deep Blues and greater country/roots music community, including selling vinyl records through the Bayport BBQ name. Though he kept his events much smaller than the original Deep Blues festivals, Johnson continued to do what he could to organize events in Clarksdale, Mississippi to help keep the original sound and influence of Deep Blues music alive. Chris Johnson had recently purchased The Den in Clarksdale, and opened it as a record store, juke joint, and haven for touring performers.

The Deep Blues scene has always been small. But it has sustained through the altruism and passion of dedicated people like Chris Johnson who saw the importance of keeping the unique sound of the North Mississippi Hill Country alive to influence present and future performers.

In 2008, Left Lane Cruiser recorded a a tribute to the Deep Blues Godfather called “Mr. Johnson.”

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