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Caleb Johnson on favorite Asheville haunts, WNC show


Emily Patrick, epatrick@gannett.com 12:53 p.m. EDT April 29, 2015

You'll probably see Caleb Johnson's May 2 show at Harrah's Cherokee Event Center hailed as a homecoming, but actually, it's more of a farewell.

Since the Asheville-born rocker won the 13th season of "American Idol" last year, he's spent a lot of time in Asheville between trips to Los Angeles and Nashville, making appearances at Mission Hospital and big events such as the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam. Much to the delight of his fellow concert-goers, he recently turned up at The Orange Peel to watch indie rock band Walk the Moon perform.

But after a big summer tour throughout the Southeast, he plans to make Nashville his base. "Nashville is a beautiful city; a great vibrant town," he says. "It's kind of like Asheville but a little bit bigger. The reason I'm moving there is because the industry is down there."

He says he runs into lots of musicians in Asheville, but it's more of a respite than a workplace. A few weeks ago, he saw Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers in Mr. K's Used Books in the River Ridge shopping center. But as far as recording a new album goes, he'd rather be in Nashville.

Although when he recounts his favorite Asheville haunts — Asheville Pizza and Brewing, Orbit DVD, Rocky's Hot Chicken Shack and Homegrown — he jokes that he might reconsider his plans.

Johnson hasn't taken much time to rest since his American Idol win. He just released his first album, "Testify," in August, but he's already determined to produce a second record. He has 20 or 30 songs all written and ready to try out in the studio.

Although Johnson made a name for himself by winning a pop TV show, he branches out into more rock and blues on the new album. "It's kind of a weird paradox where a rock singer won a pop show — does that make him a pop-rock singer?" he says. "I was raised on rock 'n' roll and soul and blues and pop and country — all kinds of different stuff. My basis is rock, but as an artist, you really want to expand your sound and really experiment and really push yourself in a creative direction that you can stick your toes in different waters."

There are plenty of big, punchy rock songs on "Testify," but they're mixed with sensitive ballads, such as "Fighting Gravity." Johnson recently released a music video for that track that tells the story of a young boy in the hospital. He says it was inspired by a boy he met at Mission Hospital while visiting the sick. The child passed away from a rare form of brain cancer, but not before inspiring the video.

"It was a haunting moment where I walked into the ICU room, and he was plugged up to all these wires and tubes and stuff," Johnson says. "It's something I'll have for the rest of my life as a memory of the boy and that whole experience."

Johnson says he hasn't made a point to pay attention to the sick; it just happened. Case in point: Shortly after he met the boy at Mission, he seized a second opportunity to help an Asheville-area cancer patient. The ailing woman approached him after the Warren Haynes Christmas Jam and explained that her greatest wish was for her husband to play the drums on stage with a rock band. Johnson said he was moved by the request and agreed. The man will join him on stage during his Harrah's show to play a cover of "Gimme Shelter," a Rolling Stones classic.

"(Cancer) affects a lot of people," Johnson said. "Anything I can do to bring joy and make people happy in that aspect — if they're struggling or whatever it is — then I'm honored to do that."

Perhaps his kindness to sick strangers comes from his own experience with hospitalization. He spent about two weeks at Mission Hospital a few years ago after he was involved in a car accident. (He was run over by his own car in the parking lot at A-B Tech, where he was studying, to be more exact.) While watching American Idol from his sickbed, he decided to try out.

"That's kind of the weird thing about life," he said. "There's some serendipity going."