Johnny Fountain

Johnny Fountain
The Grand Adventure

Half the beauty of The Grand Adventure resides in the songs themselves, the rest in the friendships that made them possible.

In December of 2015, Johnny Fountain “passed beyond the rainbow bridge,” as Savannah Pettengill put it in a post on the Factory Portland website. Cancer. “Maybe you were his friend and made memories with him going on outdoor adventures, playing music, and spreading kindness and love through fun and lighthearted jokes,” she wrote. “Maybe he was your bartender at the old Empire [Dine and Dance] before it reopened. Maybe he walked you safely to your car, or saved you from getting creepily hit on. Maybe he introduced you to the love of your life. Maybe you loved him. … In any case, if you have any involvement with the vibrantly rich music scene in our town, you have felt Johnny’s presence.”

I met him about a decade ago at Empire, the downtown bar and music venue where he alternated between slinging drinks and playing songs on the small stage by the door. Man, I remember thinking when I first saw him, that dude is a lady-killer. Mostly it was the magnificent mane of dirty-blond hair, like a mountaineering Robert Plant. But he had everything: strong features, great voice, hell of a guitarist, and that name, Johnny Fountain, worthy of a character in The Outsiders. Given all those gifts, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Fountain, as my gang called him, was that he wasn’t a pompous ass. In all my interactions with him, he was unerringly kind, generous, humble, and good-natured, a real sweetheart of a guy.

And he literally did fill the town with music. From 2008 to 2010, Fountain was a central organizer of the Tower of Song. During Portland’s First Friday Art Walks, indie-rock, alt-country and modern folk bands and solo performers would play inside an apartment at the top of the Schwartz Building, on the corner of Congress and High streets, amps pointed toward open windows. As we noted in a 2012 profile of that once dumpy (and, incredibly, still vacant) historic building, “the music would reverberate for blocks.”

Thanks to many of the same people involved with the Tower of Song, we now have Fountain’s solo album, meticulously completed by some of the best musicians in Maine. Dominic Lavoie (of Dominic & The Lucid) and Dan Boyden (Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds, Jason Spooner Band) steered this project to fruition, along with co-producers Will Ethridge (founder of Eternal Otter Records) and Wally Wenzel (who worked the sound board at Empire before joining The Mallett Brothers Band). The sessions were like a reunion, with luminaries like Aly Spralto (a.k.a. Lady Lamb) and Jacob Augustine coming back to town to cut tracks with the likes of ace bassist Colin Winsor and keyboard wizard Tyler Quist.

The results are revelatory. Just hearing Fountain’s muscular voice again is a gift, and his friends have lovingly wrapped these countrified folk numbers in rich, warm music, often singing along with him on the basic guitar-and-vocal tracks he left behind. When Lady Lamb joins Fountain on the gorgeous “In Hunt of You,” you’d have to be a statue to keep the tears from your eyes. And the stirring “One By One By One” will absolutely flatten you. “Stars collide, stars collide and I don’t feel a thing,” he sings in a slightly raspy holler. “As the panic hits the cities in waves/ As the mountain tops incinerate / I hope, I hope my soul survives the cleanse / All that is shall return to where it’s from / One by one, by one, by one.”

I’d prefer to say I’d forgotten, but the truth is I never fully appreciated how talented and versatile Fountain was as a songwriter, until now. His lyrics are observant and poetic, deftly dodging the clichés that mar so much roots music. “Bucket of dirty dollar bills / turn the chairs and count the till / hit the lights / each night is more or less the same,” he drawls on the honky-tonk ballad “Sideways: Portland, Maine.” “Silence Is A Mirror” has a spookiness one seldom hears in this genre. ‘Twenty First Century Noise” delivers a welcome dollop of rock.

Nothing can erase the tragedy of Fountain’s untimely passing, but this triumph of an album comes as close as anything ever will.

— Chris Busby

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