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Break Me Open

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Album Review

Ten songs into Johnsmith's fifth album Break Me Open, the folksinger begins singing "Box Elder" by referring to a Federal Express delivery man. Never mind that the song is one of the few on the disc that Johnsmith didn't write himself, or that it is, as its title suggests, a tribute to a type of maple tree. The intrusion of a corporate mail carrier is a shocking reminder that Johnsmith actually lives in 21st century America. For most of this record, you could imagine that the world he describes is some timeless rural paradise. Johnsmith is a song poet of the open landscape and, not surprisingly, the open road (he claims to play upwards of 150 dates a year, and that takes some traveling). He is a keen observer of the outdoors, whether he is describing a box elder (in the words of L.J. Booth), "Silver Creek," or even "Pothole Season." Naturally, those observations are the outward manifestations of an inner emotional world; the broken streets and winter weather of "Pothole Season" reflect the singer's somber mood, just as "Barefoot in the Dew" expresses a more hopeful one. And hopefulness is the viewpoint he takes toward love in such songs as "Honest Truth," "Messy Thing," and bandmate Darrell Scott's "Love's Not Through with Me," all of which hold out the possibility of romance. Of course, the association of spring with life must be contrasted with the relationship between winter and death, and if "Pothole Season" is about enduring, when Johnsmith comes to write about the death of one of his brothers, he again emphasizes nature and environment, calling the song "Cold Cold Ground" and repeating those words over and over. The music is in keeping with the language and sentiments. Johnsmith augments his acoustic guitar fingerpicking and sensitive tenor singing with a small string band calling upon banjo, bouzouki, mandolin, fiddle, and bass, along with occasional flutes and whistles. If it weren't for Federal Express, this would make for a perfect pastoral portrait.

Customer Reviews

Break Me Open: Among the best yet

As a whole, Break Me Open is a great album. John has assembled a great set of musicians to play with, including Suzy Ragsdale on vocals, and ace Fiddle player Tim O'Brien. Having O'Brien on this album is a testament to the much deserved success John has recently found. His daughter Elisi makes an appearance in the album as well, and she is clearly her father's daughter. Her clear, high voice is a perfect match for John's, and I am sure he must be very proud of her. Break Me Open, well, "opens" with a native American themed song "Back to the Mystery", and it covers a number of themes. First, he makes a reference to the "The Four Directions", and sings about his travels and the pull back to his roots in nature. He also makes reference to his family, mentioning his children, and the death of his father. The song ends with a native American chant perfectly blended into the coda. If you want to know what its like to live in Western Wisconsin in March and April, listen to Pothole Season. The song describes feeling of being shut in, and having to endure another day of bad weather after 6 months of it. But the song resolves, as do the chords, into a song of hope for spring. Many of John's best songs are about the modulation of love across a lifetime reltionship. The Honest Truth picks up the thread from his earlier work like "Darlin' I do" from "In the Blend", and he continues it with "Messy Thing" and "Love's Not Through With Me." The best art evokes powerful reactions. The song "Cold Cold Ground" is such a song. There are times when I can't listen do this song. It is a beautiful song, but the emotions are so intense and so personal. In this song, John has written a folky, major-key dirge for his brother Davey, who recently died. My own brother, also named David, has a very dangerous job, and I worry about him a lot, and I hope this song never becomes a reality for me. "Silver Creek" is also a very powerful song for me as well for completely different reasons. I know John grew up in Iowa and lives in Trempealeau, one county to the north of La Crosse, where I grew up. But we has a place like this, called Miller's Pond. It was a n offshoot of the western fork of the Mississippi river and we got there by turning off of I-90 on the way to La Crescent. He describes it perfectly. Skinny-dipping by the light of the moon, jumping into the water from the railroad bridge. John has raised this experience to one of universality of growing up and growing old. The album's eponymous song "Break Me Open" is a blues prayer invoking the creative gods to break his soul and emotions open and let them flood out and into his music. John also brings back his partner from the Runaway duo, Dan Sebranek, another luminary in the vibrant (though undercovered) Western Wisconsin music seen that also includes the likes of L. J. Booth, who is also credited on the album. My favorite song on the album is "Box Elder", which is a song about a tree. It is originally a song by LJ Booth, also from Western Wisconsin. It is a very rich song, and has so many different levels. It starts out with a riff reminicent of Lyle Lovett's "Closing Time". The tree becomes a metaphor for struggles of life, and also of transcendence. His daughter Elisi sings harmony on this song, and is the perfect complement to her father. In some ways it reminds me of another one of my favorite songs "Part Time Angels". He also conjures up some great images, like the poor FedEx man. There are also times when John's faith comes through his music. His mention of Calvary transforms the tree into something sad and yet powerfully redemptive in its will to live. Picking up on his "travelling man" theme, "21 miles" is about coming home after a tour of the southern states. He describes the directions from Oklahoma to Trempealeau perfectly, and we get another glimpse of the home that he and Jojo have built over the years. Finally, he conjures up a song that recalls his work on "Traveller", "So Here's To You". The song is a Celtic toast to friends, and the kind of friendship that develops over the years. It is a simple beautiful song. The final harmonies are classic Johnsmith, clear, honest and pitch-perfect.

Great American Music

I host a weekly independent music podcast called "The Great American Music Hour" (available on iTunes) and have played Johnsmith's music on my show before. This is a very cool album in that it incorporates classic singer-songwriter themes with a unique point of view. If you are a fan of Great American Music, you will thoroughly enjoy this album. Jerry Jodice, host The Great American Music Hour


This is the first time I have written a review for itunes and I am an avid music buyer, but this music by Johnsmith is moving. A kind of moving that influences the way you see everything around you. This music will touch you and all of the relationships that exist in your world.


Genre: Singer/Songwriter

Years Active: '90s, '00s

Folk singer/songwriter Johnsmith was born into a family of ten children in Dewitt, IA. After learning to play the guitar at 19, he began writing songs, leading to a career that found him playing over 150 dates a year. A winner of the New Folk competition at the Kerrville Folk Festival, he has also won songwriting awards at the Telluride, Rocky Mountain Folks, and Falcon Ridge Folk Festivals. He self-released his debut album, Hole in the Clouds, in 1998, and followed it with To the Four Directions...
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Break Me Open, Johnsmith
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