Johnny Rawls was born near Pascagoula, Mississippi, where his father worked in the shipyards. He grew up on a 70-acre farm in Stone County (his father commuted to the coast). Music has been in his family and in the air at home as long as he can remember. His older sister, older brother, and mother all played guitar (her mother had played piano), and an uncle was a semi-professional guitarist and fiddler, playing up and down the Gulf Coast. They would get together weekends on the farm—it was a rare Sunday afternoon when you couldn’t hear music coming from the porch.
Rawls went into law enforcement and has been in the Highway Patrol for about 30 years, but music has been part of his life even longer. He still remembers when a bluegrass band led by Jim and Jesse McReynolds gave a concert at his little country high school outside of Wiggins in 1959. Johnny, then four years old, sat on the front row with his father. The banjo player was taking a “hot ride” (a rapid-fire solo break) when the bass player slipped up behind him and rolled up his pant legs to above his knees, exposing a luxuriant field of curly red hair. Rawls’ father laughed so hard that he nearly fell over, and Johnny was hooked on bluegrass.
Guitar was his first instrument. He added bluegrass banjo in his late teens, even took a lesson or two, and played in that syncopated 3-finger style for many years. He later discovered that playing the upright bass in a bluegrass setting was just so much fun that he switched to that; it’s what he plays in the Jason Boone Band today. In recent years he’s added old-time clawhammer banjo to his bag of tricks, and quickly became a marvelously fluent and subtle performer on the instrument.
There’s a lively old-time music scene here in Mississippi, though it’s less visible than the bluegrass scene. Bluegrass music is oriented around performance and old-time music around participation, he says. Old-time players know each other in a far-flung network and often get together for combinations of potluck dinners and jam sessions. In both settings, secular and sacred tunes take turns gracefully—the groups he is in are careful not to sing anything offensive, and there’s plenty that’s fun that isn’t inappropriate. Old-time titles like “Sadie at the Back Door,” “Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” “Cluck Old Hen,” and “Red Rocking Chair” grab the imagination . . . and these are all tunes that Johnny plays.
Even old-time standards like “Mississippi Sawyer” come alive on his clawhammer banjo, and he’s written a new old-time tune or two, including “Valley’s March,” for the wedding of his friends and fellow musicians Jack Magee and Valley Gordon. Nowadays, he says that the type of music he’s going to play determines which instrument he will use: guitar for folk or acoustic music, upright bass for bluegrass, or clawhammer banjo for old-time music (though the mandolin gets a little time there, too).