C. J. Harwood
C.J. (a.k.a., Chris) Harwood is a friend of mine through our day jobs. A Ferndale native, he’s a multi-talented lifer musician who just released Johnny Harlow Rides Again, a new album featuring original songs by Harwood backed by his compatriots Jim Nicholls, Tim Sheldon, L.B. Winowiecki and JoJo Reyes.
I like the album a lot. Listening to it makes me positively nostalgic. It reminds me of what KFOG was known for when I lived in San Francisco in the 1990s, and what The Loft now features on SiriusXM: good-natured, well played rock and roll – think Bonnie Raitt, Luce, Chris Rea and the like. Harwood’s down-to-earth delivery and easygoing guitar conjures up warm Sunday mornings on the deck, pancakes cooking in the kitchen, a lover fixing you a mug of coffee, and the day full of possibilities.
One of my favorite tracks is “Ordinary Day,” Harwood’s ambling ode to simple gratitude featuring Nicholls on harmonica and Sheldon on banjo. John Hiatt would probably like to cover “Don’t Wait on Love” on his next tour – and Harwood’s strolling slide guitar pairs beautifully with his best friend and writing partner Nicholls’ cheeky harmonica on “Ginger Sun.”
Johnny Harlow is an album made by a guy who’s been in and around the music industry for decades because 1) he’s really good, 2) he really enjoys it, and 3) he’s been able to keep his sense of humor even when things got weird, starting in 1968. Let him tell it:
Chris’ caption to this photo: “Hippie with Guitar”
I played drums in a band called The Motives for Existence for a year until I contracted Hep A (probably from sharing joints and swapping spit with every damned stranger hippie in the area). During six months of quarantine, I sat in my bedroom playing an old acoustic guitar every day and night … and I mean every single moment available. After recovery I entered back into the human race as a lead guitarist.
By 1976 he joined the band Energy – all he’ll say about the group is “blue jump suits” – which earned him a less than lucrative record deal. He also played more than 100 uncredited guitar sessions:
The deal was either you play the session and get the full rate of pay but no credit on the record or you play for half rate and get credit. I was STARVING and needed things like food, medical attention and the occasional bag o’ herb. That record deal went completely south, and I was extremely bitter and dropped out of the music scene completely for the rest of the ’70s and the early ’80s … call it a “leave of absence for the soul.”
Still, some songs he worked on got local airplay, including “Come Tonight” by budding disco diva Kaiya Matthews. She mentions Chris by name – listen carefully around the 3:00 mark before the bitchin’ awesome guitar solo:
Later, he played with The Motor City Blues Project, an offshoot of the WCSX radio blues show of the same name:
I loved that band and the players. We played all the blues dumps and dives during the late ’80s and got to open for a lot of great acts: Mitch Ryder, Lonnie Mack, Junior Wells and Savoy Brown, to drop a few names.
While in that band I got to play for the first time to a massive audience at the Blues Festival at Hart Plaza. We were at the top of our game. After we hit the last note of that first tune, the gigantic, percussive sound of 20,000 people screaming, whistling and clapping was so incredibly energizing. I was so naturally high it was the best drug ever in life, and for me that is saying something.
After it was over, I totally realized why so many old rock stars keep going at it even when they are bloated and done. They can’t live without that super rush.
Fast forward to 2002. Harwood hankered to get back on stage but not to do the “same old rock star loud shit anymore.” With Mike Novack, he formed The Dirt Bros., an acoustic group featuring two guitars, violin, harmonica and four-part harmony.
We played mostly coffee house-type places filled with neo-hippies who were profoundly affected and were mostly annoying … but one thing that they did do was LISTEN to the music. We produced the album: you can buy it on CD Baby.
Which brings us to the present day and Johnny Harlow. This album isn’t for sale: he’ll share it with whoever wants it. Look him up on his site for more details.
Thanks, Chris, for sharing your story with me. I’m fascinated by creative types like you who, amid kids and marriage and day jobs and a lot of personal and professional ups and downs, keep hauling out the guitar and dreaming up something new and wonderful. That’s an inspiration to us all.
See you on the flip side …
P.S. Mark your calendars for Leon & Lulu’s Books & Authors event, coming to Clawson on Oct. 25. I’ll be selling Love and Other B-Sides as part of their fundraiser for literacy programs – see you there!