Rocker Touting His New Album at Age 72

By John Hansen Brainerd, MN Dispatch - Saturday, December 16, 2006

        BAXTER, Minn. Johnny Jay Huhta doesn't view his recent induction into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and Lifetime Achievement Award from the Minnesota Rock & Country Hall of Fame as invitations to sit back and enjoy a career well done. Rather, the honors inspired the 72-year-old musician to get back in the studio and justify the attention.
        "Those little things kind of add up and make you think, 'Hey, do I deserve this?'" Huhta said in an interview at his rural Baxter home. "There's a lot of people out there who probably deserve something like that more than I do. I deduced that maybe I owe 'em something. So I went back and did another one."
        "Back in the Game," recorded this summer in Nasvhille, Tenn., is only the third album from the Duluth-born musician. Singles were the name of the game in his heyday - he broke out nationally with "Sugar Doll" and "Tears" for Mercury Records in 1957 and had another big hit with "Buck $2.80" for Stop Records in 1967.
        Many of his dozen or so hits faded away, but he still has a following in the northern parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin, where he is known as the area's Rock 'n' Roll Godfather.
        "When you mention Johnny's name, people's ears perk up," said Jeff Jarvinen, co-producer of Duluth Rocked Media's "Traditions in Country" compilation, which includes "Tears" and "Buck $2.80." "They're glad to hear he's still around and still playing."
        Huhta earned his following by touring for more than two decades, mostly in Minnesota and Wisconsin. He often played with his younger brothers, Max and Mike, who contributed on "Back in the Game." But his alcoholism made it a harder living than it had to be.
        "I got off the road in 1980 and decided to just pull the pin, quit the band, get off the road," Huhta said. "One of the places where I played last was in Faribault. I landed there and just stayed there and went into treatment four years later."
        During his recovery period in Burnsville, he began spending summers fishing on Woman Lake near Longville. He and his wife, Pat, decided to look for a cabin in the Brainerd lakes area, and they found one along a quiet stretch of the Gull River. They made it their home in 2002, and Huhta set up everything he needed to be happy: A small recording studio, a horseshoe pit and a boat - not necessarily in that order.
        "It's like living at the cabin, and that's what I love about it," said Huhta, who has access to 22 miles of river between two dams. "It's real peaceful. I got a door on my studio there. If things get too hectic, I open the door, whistle for the dog and we're gone fishin'."
        When Huhta started penning the originals for "Back in the Game" - only one of the six, "Too Many Rainy Days," comes from his decades' worth of old demos - he avoided the back-from-the-bottle cliche.
        "Some people have whole albums about that, and maybe it's part of their therapy," said Huhta, who has been sober for 22 years. "I don't care if people know I'm an alcoholic, but I don't want to dwell on that."
        Instead, Huhta wrote unrequited love songs - another country staple, of course, but one that has meant a lot to him ever since his honky-tonk days "when everybody in the place was divorced and crying in their beer."
        All six originals seem to be about the one that got away, but they hit different levels on the heartbreak meter. "Tiptoe Away" is a somber lament; on the other hand, "I Never Did Not Love You" and "Chloe" are just too catchy to cry over.
        "You want to be with them, kind of cheer 'em up and let 'em know you've been there, too," said Huhta, who is on his second marriage. "I think it's just associating with the world, paying your dues and knowing what goes on. It's real-life stuff."
        The self-released "Back in the Game" also allowed Huhta to be truer to his own style than ever before. Although known for his rock and rockabilly hits, he claims he's always been a country singer.
        "When I first went to Nashville, you couldn't get a (country record) deal," he said. "When Elvis started getting hot, everybody wanted an Elvis. 'Tears' originally was a country song (but I recorded it as) kind of a rock 'n' roll, calypso type thing."
        Huhta appreciates the modern era of music, where he can control not only the recording process but also the marketing. "The way the business is done now is different because of the Internet and downloading," said Huhta, whose album has been hovering just below No. 100 on the Americana Music Association charts. "A person could become a star all on his own if he did it right. ... You couldn't do that years ago. There was no way you could do that."
        When rock 'n' roll was in its infancy, musicians generally had to make the trek to Nashville to record and build a national fan base. Jarvinen suggests Huhta was at a disadvantage because he mostly played up north.
        "The quality of artists in Minnesota is just as good as it is in Nashville, it's just that you don't hear about these names," Jarvinen said. "Johnny Jay was one of the people that took it a step further. He knows the biggies, he did some serious financial transactions, but he never really got over the top. And who knows why?"
        Huhta admitted "there's probably a little vanity in there" when explaining why he decided to attempt a comeback, but mostly, he's just curious to see what will happen. If "Back in the Game" does well, he plans to do a rockabilly album and perhaps rerelease some of those hard-to-find singles in a collection.
        Tom Johnson, a Superior, Wis., record dealer who collaborated with Jarvinen on "Traditions in Country," is one person who believes a greatest hits album would find an audience. He has seen Huhta's singles do good business on the secondary market.
        "Any of the clean copies that aren't beat up, they always sell," Johnson said.
        For now, though, Huhta is pushing "Back in the Game" like a musician reborn. While he has no intention of playing 200 shows a year like he used to, he did play a CD-release show last month in the Duluth area.
        "Nowadays, you have a better shot at somebody coming after you than you did back then," he said. "You make a lot of noise, they might knock on your door. Not that I have stars in my eyes, but from a younger person's standpoint, that would really keep me in the business."
        And if "Back in the Game" doesn't take off? Well, he's still got 12 good songs and 22 miles of river.

Back to the "Take Note" Main Page