It wasn't too long ago when Royce Johns thought of himself as a refined musician.
He’s a lifelong student of classic rock and outlaw country, filling Midwest bars and music halls each weekend with his big, welcoming voice and a six string emblazoned with his name on the fret board.
And — at about 150 shows a year — Johns thought he made strides in honing his craft since 2016, when the 23-year-old launched his solo project. That was until he took a trip to Nashville last July and stepped into the studio with some of the Music City’s finest players.
A grounding experience, to say the least.
“As a musician, and I don’t even like to use that word anymore compared to what I've seen out there, it’s the most magical experience to sit out there with those guys for three hours,” Johns said. “It really puts you in perspective of how good you are ... which you’re not.”
Still, the aspiring country singer returned to his Elkhart home wielding a seven-song record and do-it-yourself work ethic worthy of Tennessee praise.
“Truckstop Souvenirs,” out Friday, showcases Johns’ ability to deliver heart-warming, timeless country stories. It’s an album influenced by the storytellers of 1970s and '80s Nashville — like Merle Haggard or George Strait — that adopts a modern production polish.
Listen to “Truckstop Souvenirs” exclusively below. Story continues after.
Iowa’s own Robert Deitch produced and co-wrote the album, collaborating with tenured songwriters such as Tony Haselden, who’s penned work for Strait and Keith Whitley, and Bobby Bare, a Country Music Hall of Fame inductee.
Deitch heard Johns perform at a local winery a few years ago … and he was sold.
“This kid’s got talent, ability, drive … all the ingredients to be good,” Deitch, a full-time country songwriter, said. “What’s more important is (his) ability to say, ‘How can I improve?’”
He needed songs. So Deitch started writing.
And throughout the album, listeners hear Johns echo emotional words from Deitch and company as he brings to life tales of absentee fathers (“Truckstop Souvenirs”) and complicated love (“Either Way”).
“They’re great songs, great stories,” Johns said. “The way Rob put this together is every line is meant to be there and every payoff is meant to be there.”
The album aims for substance over style, Johns said. Listeners won’t hear a rap verse or a synth-laced chorus — neither of which seem out of place on country radio’s pop-leaning tendencies of 2018.
He’s not against the sound of today’s chart-toppers, but Johns knew in making the record that he to divert from bro-country’s beaten path.
“There’s no grit to (that) at all; there’s no (expletive) heartache,” Johns said. “Everything’s all good and it’s just a big (expletive) party. It’s not right.”
So, he’s spreading the album's songs of heartache and healing with a do-it-yourself tenacity.
Johns played 190 gigs in 2017, mostly in Iowa. He’s self-managed, self-distributed and self-promoted full-time musician with no plans of leaving his home state (unless he gets a call for the right tour, of course).
He’s the type of musician who takes a five-hour gig at the Downtown Farmers’ Market and plays each minute because he knows a new audience stops on his corner every half-hour.
“I have to keep progressing or I get in a bad head space,” Johns said. “No matter how good I have it, I have to keep bettering myself.”
His career’s moving at an accelerated pace, said Deitch, who splits his time between studios in Nashville and home in Polk City. Johns' release is “right there” with the best of Nashville’s upcoming entertainers.
“He’s kind-of an entrepreneur with a singer’s voice and talent,” Deitch said. “He’s out there honing his craft, night after night.”
And Iowa’s where this burgeoning singer plans to continue honing his country showmanship — because nothing, not even Music City’s world class players, compares to the comforts of home.
“It’s my home,” Johns said. “It’s where my entire family’s from. Even if I didn't play music, I would never move out of Iowa.”
See Royce Johns live this month:
Sept. 13 at Beer Can Alley in Omaha
Sept. 14 at Firetrucker Brewing Co. in Ankeny
Sept. 20 at the Lucky Donkey in Boxholm
Sept. 28 at the Grumpy Goat in Ankeny
Sept. 29 at the Downtown Farmers' Market
Find additional tour dates and album information at roycejohns.com.