“We all help each other,” said Bobbie Hayes, a retired dental assistant and one of the group’s core members. “You don’t have to be really proficient — we’re an open-minded group that accepts musicians at whatever level.”
The music at Johnny’s ranges from Bluegrass and Americana to Latin American music, and though some performances develop organically, others go through a more formal booking process.
“We want to be a space where more people come and have informal jam sessions,” said Dominique Shaw, the assistant manager. ”Right now it seems very important to turn the space over to the community so people have a voice and a place where they can express themselves.”
Shaw said she hopes to see more impromptu sessions like the Saturday group, which is unofficially led by Randy Tobias.
“I find great pleasure in bringing together folks by chance and seeing what develops,” Tobias said.
Tobias, who seems able to play any song expertly on his acoustic guitar just by hearing its name mentioned, learned about the Saturday jam sessions from his daughter, Birdie, who sings and plays her ukulele with the group when she can.
The group sprouted up about three years ago, Birdie said. One of her favorite parts has been watching people walk in timid but walk out singing along.
“And then we sing a song they love deeply — and that’s when the connection happens.”
The soul of Carrboro
“What do you call a guy who hangs out with musicians?” Slim quips to his audience in the middle of a Sunday set at Johnny’s.
You wouldn’t guess it now, but if Bill McCulloch had walked in on the Saturday circle at Johnny’s before creating his stage alter ego, “Windy City Slim,” he’d probably be one of the shy onlookers that needed some convincing before joining in on guitar, harmonica or vocals.
But after decades of performing as Slim, a slow-talking character that was born in 1970s Chicago, music has been a way for him to embrace the confidence of his performance personality and carry it into everyday life.
“Windy City Slim was a character to get through my nervousness,” he said. “If you pretend to be at ease when you’re not, eventually you will be at ease. Now, getting up in front of a bunch of people, my hands don’t shake anymore.”
He grew up in Washington, D.C. with a mother who was a classically trained vocalist, always filling the house with music. He tried college but dropped out without a single credit and went on to have a lengthy career in the news industry, eventually becoming the editor of The Gloucester Daily Times in 1984. Throughout it all, he saw himself as a musician first.
Slim recalled an encounter that describes his relationship to music best: After performing at a coffeehouse in Gloucester, the owner said he couldn’t believe the editor of the Daily Times performed around town as Windy City Slim. “I said, ‘You’ve got it backwards, pal — you should think it’s unbelievable that a guy who comes in here and does this is also the editor of the Daily Times.’”
In 2012, Slim underwent treatment for stage four head and neck cancer. This glimpse of mortality spurred him into action, and once he was healthy he finished his book, “A Dandy Little Game,” which came out last year.
He has since started his second book and continues to perform with other musicians at local venues like Johnny’s, though less regularly.
“It’s kind of an all things to all people, the soul of this little residential community,” he said about the Johnny’s space. “And it’s funky as hell.”
Source of fuel
Shaw said making Johnny’s a space where anyone with an instrument feels welcome is a priority.
“There’s something very special about people willing to share their artistic voice with you, and it’s an honor.”
She recalled a favorite Hunter S. Thompson quote of hers about music being a matter of energy and a source of fuel, both for those who perform and for the student or onlooker who thought all they’d find at Johnny’s is coffee.
“I think it’s a fuel our community runs on.”