Evan Johns, 60, left his mark on Austin music as a firebrand guitarist


The roots-rock guitarist moved to Austin in the 1980s and was part of Grammy nominee Big Guitars From Texas.

Johns also had a role in the early career rise of Kelly Willis, who also moved to Austin from the D.C. area.

Evan Johns, who moved to Austin from Virginia three decades ago and became one of the city’s most prominent guitarists and colorful characters, died Saturday night at St. David’s South Austin Medical Center after complications from recent surgeries. He was 60.

Born July 12, 1956, Johns was raised in the Washington suburb of McLean, Va., and was already prodigious on guitar in his early teens. Working early on with legendary D.C.-area guitarist Danny Gatton, Johns became a fixture on the city’s rockabilly and roots-rock scenes. His group the H-Bombs briefly backed up hitmaking pop group the Starland Vocal Band in the late 1970s, Johns’ childhood friend Ivan Brown said Sunday.

In 1984, Johns moved to Austin when drummer Mike Buck called him to ask if he wanted to replace departing guitarist Don Leady in the LeRoi Brothers, a top band in the 1980s Austin roots-rock scene. “I didn’t really expect him to come down here, but I thought I’d give it a shot,” Buck recalled. “Much to my surprise, he said yes.”

Johns’ stint in the LeRoi Brothers led to his participation in Big Guitars From Texas, a local all-star “guitar army” whose 1985 album “Trash, Twang & Thunder” earned a Grammy nomination. Eventually Johns left the LeRois and brought Brown down to Austin for a new version of the H-Bombs that also included Mark Korpi and Jim Starboard.

Johns’ move south helped lure others from the D.C. area to Austin. In 1987, a teenage Kelly Willis and her beau Mas Palermo came here to pursue music and got a big head start when Johns hooked them up with Carlyne Majer, his manager at the time.

“I handed him our demo tape, he dug it, and he handed it to Carlyne,” Palermo recalled. “Everything happened pretty fast.”

Majer began managing Willis and her band, leading to an MCA Records deal.

In the 1990s, Johns relocated to western Canada for a few years, at one point falling into a coma. Brown remembers flying up to see Johns, who dealt with alcoholism for most of his life, in Canada after being told Johns wasn’t likely to survive. But he did, moving back to Austin and becoming musically active here again.

Further health crises marked his later years, including a broken hip in 2010 that caused him constant pain for the rest of his life. But his move into a South Austin affordable housing complex helped stabilize and reinvigorate his creative pursuits. He released two albums in the past two years and was working on another when he died, according to Kristen Anderson, Brown’s wife.

“He had a heart the size of Texas, but he could give hellfire” on guitar, Anderson said.

“That’s the way he played,” Brown added. “Nobody played like him, and he didn’t play like anyone else.”

Survivors include his mother, Emma Woodward, of West Virginia, and brothers David and Michael.

Services are pending.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Music

Canadian rock legend Kenny Shields dies 
Canadian rock legend Kenny Shields dies 

Kenny Shields, the lead singer of Canadian classic rock ‘n’ roll band Streetheart, died Friday after cardiac surgery in Winnipeg, CBC News reported. He was 69. >> Read more trending news Shields and Streetheart charted during the 1970s and 1980s with hits like “Action,” “Hollywood,” &ldquo...
‘Britain’s Got Talent’ champion dog Pudsey dies
‘Britain’s Got Talent’ champion dog Pudsey dies

Former “Britain’s Got Talent” winner Ashleigh Butler announced the death of her beloved dog, Pudsey on Friday, ITV reported. >> Read more trending news Butler, who won the 2012 season title on the ITV television show with Pudsey -- a mix of border collie, bichon frise and Chinese crested -- posted an emotional tribute on her...
Ringling’s circus tigers finally have a retirement home
Ringling’s circus tigers finally have a retirement home

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Red Unit, one of the now-closed show’s two traveling groups, performed for the last time May 7 in Rhode Island. An emotional peak of that performance, the Providence Journal reported, came when the big-cat trainer tearfully thanked each one of the tigers in his act. Within days, 15 of those Ringling...
Catherine Taylor to lead Bullock Texas State History Museum
Catherine Taylor to lead Bullock Texas State History Museum

The Texas State Preservation Board has chosen museum veteran  Catherine Taylor to lead the giant Bullock State History Museum. Catherine Taylor to lead Bullock Texas State Historical Museum. Contributed Most recently director of museum resources at the Nantucket Historical Association, the native Texan also served as a district...
The best places to grab a drink poolside in Austin
The best places to grab a drink poolside in Austin

We’re in the dog days of summer now, folks. The heat seems stifling and neverending, and it’s no longer exciting to have the prospect of a long several months of warm, sunny days laid out in front of us. Last month, we told you about five hotel pools that offer free hours or day passes for locals, so we decided to round up a list of pools...
More Stories