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 Hospital after complications from recent surgeries. He was 60.
Born July 12, 1956, Johns was raised in the Washington, D.C., 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 on 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, who was 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 likely wouldn’t 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. Service arrangements are pending.