Derek Johnson, who has spent more than a decade with Monroe Crossing, has released a new solo project entitled Hard Life. Johnson calls his “band” on the album Hardgrass, but it is a collection of 19 guest musicians from Minnesota—where he’s based—and Wisconsin.
Johnson, who has also performed as part of The High 48s and the duo Gentlemen Dreadnought, wrote six of the 14 tracks. The best among those is “Ballad of the 1st Minnesota Volunteers,” a good Civil War/Gettysburg story tune. The rest of the album features an interesting mix of covers: Bruce Springsteen’s “The River”; Carter Stanley’s “White Dove,” which is one of the stronger cuts as is Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You”; and Hazel Dickens’ “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me.”
It’s interesting to note that the album was put together during the pandemic, so the contributors never got together as a group or practiced. Each musician recorded at home and sent their files back and forth, which Johnson mentions in the liner notes was one of the qualifications for being on Hard Life.
While there is a mix throughout, Catie Jo Pidel and Eric Christopher (fiddle); Rich Casey and David Tousley (bass); and Craig Evans (banjo) were featured on the most songs. The album is well done with strong production values and a good mix of original material and tunes from others.