I first met Roger Johnson and Heaven’s Mountain Band in 2012. I’ll never forget that day. They were so nervous to meet me. You will see in this article that they hold me in high esteem. Might I say they hold me in too high esteem? Without this knowledge, some of this article would sound self-serving. I promise you, I’m not the big wig they think I am. To quote my friend Aaron Wilburn, “bless their hearts.”
I wanted to write about Roger Johnson and not the entire band for this article. We’ll write about the band at a later date I’m sure. Roger is such a standout songwriter and driving force for old-time religion and old-time gospel music, that I really wanted to shine the spotlight on him alone this month. I am proud to introduce you to Roger Johnson.
Les Butler: What is your earliest musical memory?
Roger Johnson: At 12 years old, I got my first guitar. It was a Western Auto Trutone acoustic guitar and they were on sale for $12.50. If you purchased the guitar, they gave you a free set of Black Diamond strings. My mother purchased that for me the Christmas of 1969.
Butler: How many groups have you been with, from the earliest to the most current?
Johnson: The only group I’ve been a part of is Heaven’s Mountain Band. We started in 1986 as a Southern gospel group. We were part of the Eddie Crook Company. We changed from Southern gospel music to Bluegrass Gospel about the time we met you (Les Butler) in 2012. We had so much trouble keeping a live Southern gospel band and we could play our own acoustic instruments, so it was a natural move. We always loved the groups featured on Front Porch Fellowship, and we wanted to go more that direction.
Butler: When did you start writing songs?
Johnson: Around 1985. The first song I wrote was, “Latter Rain.” This was the first song we took to the Eddie Crook Company and they liked it. The first month they released it, it made the Top 80.
Butler: What is your favorite song that you’ve written and why?
Johnson: My song, “I’ll Ride This Ship to The Shore.” I’m glad all this new religion stuff got to me too late, I was already on board the old ship of Zion, worshipping in the old-time way.
Butler: How many songs have you written?
Johnson: I’m guessing, around 200. I really don’t know. I’ve written a lot of songs years ago and have forgotten I even wrote them. I frequently stumble upon songs that I wrote years ago that I’ve forgotten.
Butler: Is there a song that you’ve written that came to you in a very unusual way or during an unusual circumstance?
Johnson: “The Empty Altar.” We need a burden for the lost. God has really used this song. When I wrote the song, I was just sitting at the house. We had just gotten off a weekend where folks just didn’t seem to want to worship the Lord. We gave altar calls and saw no movement of any kind. It just seemed liked folks didn’t care. I got to thinking about that and how much I missed seeing tears on the altar. The Lord just started to stir my soul, and he gave me the lyrics to this song.
Butler: Did you ever think you’d have a group that has had seven consecutive No. 1 songs that you have written, with parades and special days honoring you and Heaven’s Mountain Band?
Johnson: I never thought we would have one. We just want to give God the glory. I still can’t get over how much radio has responded to our simple message and the simple way in which we sing that message.
Butler: What other artists have recorded your songs?
Johnson: Rhonda Vincent recorded, “Momma and God,” Paul Williams recorded, “That Ole Church Bell,” Marvin Morrow recorded, “Somebody Prayed,” the Primitive Quartet recorded, “Covered in Grace,” Terry Terrell recorded, “Heroes of Prayer,” and “Graveyard of Sin,” the King James Boys recorded, “Super Water,” and the Old Time Preachers Quartet recorded, “I’ll Ride This Ship to The Shore,” and “Empty Altar.” You (Les Butler) recorded, “When His Blood Fell.”
Butler: Who are some of your musical mentors in the gospel music industry?
Johnson: The Primitive Quartet has set the standard for what I believe a gospel group ought to be. And, to me, you (Les Butler) single-handedly has kept this kind of old-time gospel music alive in the gospel music world; radio, concerts, churches, and TV.
Butler: What’s your most special musical/ministry moment?
Johnson: I have two. Meeting you (Les Butler) at the Singing News Office in Nashville. We were nervous and excited. We’ve listened to your radio show for years. Secondly, my greatest memory to date is New Haven Baptist Church, Norwood, Ohio. Over 225 people came to the altar, praising and seeking God. I’ll never forget that day.
Butler: When you’re not picking and singing, what are you doing?
Johnson: I’m writing songs mostly. I try to spend every possible moment with my seven grandkids. We fish, play music, hunt, play follow the leader, climb trees, you name it. I also help our son, Rodney, at his business, Johnson RV Supply in Red Bay, Ala.
Butler: What haven’t you done musically/ministry-wise that you would like to do before you hang it up?
Johnson: I would love to be able to play musical instruments like David Johnson. The first time we recorded with David he started playing the fiddle, then he played a second fiddle part, then a third fiddle part on “Good Shepherd.” As he was doing that, all we could do was sit in the control (booth) and cry. Then he started adding other instruments like the acoustic bass, acoustic guitar, mandolin, dobro, banjo. He plays everything to perfection.
Butler: Please give us a brief testimony…
Johnson: Well, we never thought being raised poor, out in the sticks, that God would ever use us especially the way he is today. Everywhere we go, all we
ever want to do is brag on him. What he’s done is everything.
By Leslie Butler
First published by SGNScoops Magazine in March 2019.
Read the May SGNScoops Magazine Online HERE