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Asheville's Caleb Johnson Won 'American Idol.' Five Years Later, He's Found His Own Voice

courtesy of the artist

“American Idol” introduced Caleb Johnson to the nation as a powerhouse rock n roll vocalist. He proved he could pull off Steven Tyler, Steve Perry, Robert Plant. Even if you graduated Asheville’s Irwin High School alongside Caleb Johnson, you probably remember him more for winning Season 13 than for anything Johnson has done in his home city.

Now, five years later, like many whose fame has come from “American Idol” and other singing competitions, Johnson is motivated to prove he’s worthy of attention for his own music.

His new album is called “Born From Southern Ground,” and it’s born to showcase Johnson’s range and power.

Johnson and his band launch “Born From Southern Ground” with a pair of shows, June 13-14 at the Grey Eagle in Asheville.


“‘Born From Southern Ground’ is me,” he said. “It was my vision, it was my baby. I wrote that record, I co-produced that record, I funded that record. That was nobody else telling me what to do.”

Johnson is referring to the sweet-and-sour deal that locks in every televised competition winner. Yes, they receive recording contracts, but the artists have little to no say in who produces their records, where they’re recorded or how they’re marketed.

Johnson stops just short of disowning the first album he made just months after winning “American Idol,” critical mainly of the sound and the record label’s choice of producer.

“The show got canceled on FOX like two years after I won, so all the contracts were null and void,” he explained. “The management company shut down, they went bankrupt, and I went like ‘Hallelujah,’ and that was it. I was a new man.”

Now at age 28, Johnson is quick to say he wouldn’t be where he is today if it weren’t for the show. He was singing in Asheville cover bands and another group that had made a record of original music, and he auditioned twice for “Idol,” getting as far as the Hollywood round but no further.

“I messed up on stage and it was basically a lack of being prepared,” Johnson said. “I forgot the lyrics and that’s why I got cut, because I bombed it on stage.”

His father, a college football coach, encouraged Johnson to audition yet again.

“The third time around, I had some shows under my belt and a record I had done, and I was fully aware of who I was as a singer and artist,” he said. “It paid off in spades. “

Johnson went from someone not well known even on Asheville stages to, literally, an overnight sensation across the country.

“After the show, I definitely got very paranoid because of the celebrity aspect of it,” he said. “It’s cool to take pictures and stuff, but these people that come up to you, they act like they’ve known you forever and you have no idea who these people are. When you come from obscurity to that national stage, you kinda don’t know where to land.”

Along with Johnson, there are 18 different people with songwriting credits on Johnson’s debut album, called “Testify,” and it fell from the Billboard charts as quickly as it entered. So too did Johnson’s national profile, for which he’s thankful. He used some of his winnings from “American Idol” to hire musicians and a producer, pay a recording studio and shoot the first promotional video for “Born From Southern Ground.”

“It’s not about Idol, it’s not about TV. The pressure for that is off,” he said. “I can just focus on why I’m doing this, which is the music.”

You’ll hear deliberate nods to bands such as Aerosmith and the Black Crowes on the record, and aside from Johnson’s voice, it’s hard to pick out any distinctive traits in the music. Johnson wears that as a badge of pride.

“I wanna make music that I would listen to. Black Crowes is one of those bands, Aerosmith, Queen, Zeppelin, Bob Seeger,” he said. “The record taps into the vein of what I love and music I obsess over.”

While he’s still recognized in public from time to time, Johnson said he’s happy to pull away from the expectations that come with wearing the sash of “American Idol” winner.

“We’re still having to work and grind in the club circuit. You have to build a strong audience and fan base, especially in rock,” he said. “I’m going to have push and tour this record probably for like two years.”

That brings another challenge. Johnson is suddenly in demand as a vocalist for hire. He’s now fronting a new version of the band Meatloaf, called Bat, and he’s among the scores of vocalists brought into the fold of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. He’s also starting up a new grunge-oriented band that won’t bear his name.

“I still get recognized and it’s still cool to see the after-effects of all that and to have made an impact on people’s lives to where they’re ‘Dude, we were rocking out to you in our living room,’” he said. “So to bring back rock-n-roll, it makes me feel good.”

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.
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