For Social Distortion guitarist and longtime SoCal punk stalwart Jonny 2 Bags, finding a review of his debut solo LP, Salvation Town (set for release this week on Isotone Records), printed in Rolling Stone magazine came as a surprise. The fact that it was a favorable write-up, albeit backhanded–reviewer John D. Luerssen dubs it an "unexpectedly strong debut"–was nothing less than a shocker for the man born Jonny Wickersham. "I was really kind of concentrating on keeping my expectations fairly low," he says. "I've never been down this road before."
Surely, going solo is a long time coming for someone like Wickersham, 46, who has made a career as a full-time guitarist starting in his early 20s. A founding member of the OC bluesy-hardcore band Cadillac Tramps, Wickersham primarily supplied riffs and instrumental arrangements for front man Brian Coakley's songs. Later, during the back half of the '90s, he'd join seminal LA punkers Youth Brigade in a similar role, followed by the U.S. Bombs. In 2000, Mike Ness tapped him to fill the rhythm-guitar/backup-vocals spot in Social Distortion after the death of Dennis Danell.
Though he's credited for co-writing several of the tracks on the past two Social D records, he has mainly been getting the instrumental end of the song together, as he did with previous bands. And given Social Distortion's busy touring schedule over the past 14 years, time constraints played a factor in Wickersham struggling for tangible results in terms of his own songwriting. There were mental roadblocks as well. "Songwriting is something I've worked on and struggled with my whole life," he says.
He continues, "As long as I've wanted to do this, the main reason I haven't done it is because I've lacked confidence. The fact is, I've made a few attempts over the years of starting my own band, and I'd rally up some friends of mine, but people weren't really feeling it."
With Salvation Town, it's evident that he has finally gotten it together–the right songs and the right personnel. Rolling Stone's comment of his being an "unexpectedly" solid album doesn't bother Wickersham. "It could be because the sound is so vastly different from anything I've done in the past," he says.
From his perspective, that might be true, but in many of these tracks, there rings the same kind of barroom-blues allure that garnered Cadillac Tramps their following, but with a decidedly Austin City Limits underpinning. Many of the tunes take on a lamenting, retrospective vibe; our fave is "Clay Wheels," a rustic arrangement with a Basement Tapes feel, thanks to accordion flourishes and a close vocal harmony on the verse. "To be riding on clay wheels, it's like to be saying I'm stuck in a rut," Wickersham explains. "Everyone else has moved on to Road Riders, and I'm still on clay wheels."
Perhaps more so than the songwriting itself, the musicians he has surrounded himself with elevate this record beyond what one might expect from a musician known primarily as a career sideman. The collection of A-list session players includes Greg Leisz (Eric Clapton, Bill Frisell) offering up slide-guitar work; "maxi-instrumentalist" David Lindley (Warren Zevon, Ry Cooder) on lap steel and pedal steel; and Jackson Browne cameoing on "Then You Stand Alone," singing a harmony on the chorus.
"I love this album, and I'm ready to stand behind it 100 percent," he says, in a rare moment when pride beams through his voice. "[Bandleading] has given me an entirely different take about where Mike [Ness] is coming from. It has been such a cool eye-opener for me in a lot of ways."
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