Buck Johnson might be having a mid-life crisis.
But it’s not like your run-of-the-mill find-a-sportier-car-or-younger-wife mid-life crisis.
“Instead of buying a Corvette, I get to tour with Aerosmith,” says Johnson, the Alabama-born musician who turns 50 in November.
Add to that this week’s release of a solo album, “Enjoying the Ride,” and you’ve got a full-fledged rock-and-roll change of life for the man who grew up in Shady Grove singing gospel music with his family.
After graduating from Minor High School and Birmingham-Southern College, where he met his wife, former Miss Alabama Kym Williams Johnson, he spent years playing rock ‘n’ roll, country and other kinds of music in bars and at festivals around the region. He co-wrote Carlos Santana’s hit “Just Feel Better” and twice made the top 40 while a member of the country band Whiskey Falls.
Since 2006, the Johnsons have made their home in Nashville, with Buck co-writing songs and touring with musicians such as the Doobie Brothers and John Waite, and Kym running Music City Music Together, a thriving music and singing franchise for mothers and babies.
Johnson had heard around Easter 2014 that Aerosmith was looking for a keyboard player, but it wasn’t until he was visiting Birmingham for Mother’s Day that year that he got the call. Literally, a call from Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, which resulted in Johnson boarding a plane for Istanbul the next day.
After staying up all night on the flight “studying and cramming” and learning everything he could about Aerosmith’s music, Johnson checked into his hotel and went straight to the venue to meet with Tyler.
“I sat with him in his dressing room with an acoustic guitar, and the first song we played was ‘Cryin’,’ which has the highest parts,” Johnson recalls. “He wanted to be sure I could sing it. We got into it, and he just stopped and got emotional and said, ‘Where have you been?’ I said, ‘Waiting for the moment to happen.’”
In the wake of a mining disaster that killed hundreds in Turkey, Aerosmith canceled that concert in Istanbul, but Johnson took the stage with the band a few nights later in Sofia, Bulgaria.
“To get on stage in front of 20,000 people, and you’re playing with Aerosmith, you’re pinching yourself saying, ‘Just don’t mess up,’” Johnson says. “It was nothing short of a dream come true. I had the support of my family and my parents, and I wouldn’t be where I am without my wife, Kym. I already won the lottery in that regard.”
Johnson has toured with Aerosmith since 2014, and he plans to be with them when they start what Tyler has called a “farewell tour” in 2017.
During breaks, Johnson has toured with others (like Whitford/St. Homes, featuring Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford and Ted Nugent vocalist Derek St. Holmes) and performed with the Birmingham-based Black Jacket Symphony.
He has also continued to co-write songs in Nashville with longtime collaborator Charlie Midnight (“Living in America”) and others, including fellow former Birmingham singer-songwriter Alice Bargeron, who also lives in Nashville.
“As a collaborator, he’s the guy you go to when you need the song ‘elevated,’” Bargeron says. “If something’s missing, he’ll identify it and turn the whole thing around.
“The thing about him that most people might not realize is how multi-dimensional his talent is,” she adds. “I’ve worked with him for years and continue to be astounded by his versatility as a vocalist. He can sing any style flawlessly.”
“Enjoying the Ride,” Johnson’s solo debut, has been in the works for several years.
With songs by Johnson and Midnight, the album has been shopped around for a while.
“Right before I got the Aerosmith gig, there was a label out of Charleston, S.C., called Spectra, who loved it and wanted to put it out,” Johnson says. “Then I took off for Istanbul out of the blue, and we put on the brakes again.”
Spectra is still the label behind “Enjoying the Ride,” which Johnson is hesitant to describe.
“I don’t want to say Southern rock, because people immediately think Lynyrd Skynyrd, and it’s really not that,” he says. “It’s American rock ‘n’ roll that has some Southern in it, some country in it and some rock in it. Let the listener decide.”
Johnson just wants to continue playing, and he says that although he had some success early on, his long career has helped him maneuver the major successes of the past few years.
“Everyone has their place and time,” he says. “I was always working, but nothing of the magnitude of an Aerosmith thing. It took years of sticking with it, with some luck along the way.”