Longtime folk-singer Mike Justis and his band gear up for two Mondavi Center gigs this year
Fox & Goose seemed like an appropriate place to meet Mike Justis. The public house, known for its open-mics and English breakfast-style atmosphere, is where he not only made his Sacramento public debut in 1978. Justis continues to hold down a regular slot on the second Tuesday of every month, performing solo, in a duo or with a larger group which on some nights can be a rocking band.
A week before our interview, I caught Justis on such a night, where he and three cohorts were preparing for a higher profile gig at the Courtyard Marriott outside the Mondavi Center in Davis on April 13. Those players include longtime friends Steve McLane (guitarist), Kathy Barwick (mandolin and resophonic guitar), and a more recent addition, Jim Ivler (bass).
Justis, a self-effacing bandleader, repeatedly calls attention to the live interplay between McLane and Barwick: “To me, that’s the secret sauce,” Justis says. “When the band is in a groove, it’s just like a drug. That’s our shtick, the interplay between Steve and Kathy.”
Though their live sets mostly consist of songs from Justis’ own catalog, the covers include fresh interpretations of familiar ’70s folk, blues and rock songs through Justis’ own unique vocal filter. His voice lies somewhere between Joe McDonald and Townes VanZant.
As for his songwriting, Justis isn’t shy about sharing his thoughts about the world in his verses. Whether it’s his anger about the environment or news of the day, disgust seems to work for him.
“If somebody’s happy right now, there’s something wrong with you,” Justis says. “I have that kind of cynicism. You see, it’s best to stick with my genre. I just don’t write a lot of love songs.”
Justis, a Vietnam vet, supplanted from his Louisiana home in the ’60s and came to discover his passion for music in the ’70s. Though the Army experiences don’t appear often in his songwriting, he clearly has absorbed much from that time. He names some of the influential songwriters (Dylan, Young, Prine) but claims he didn’t pattern himself after any of them.
“You don’t have to have a great voice to be a great songwriter,” he says.
Over the past 10 years, Justis has recorded three albums, all self-released in limited supply. Those records, Barroom Philosopher (2008), One Foot In (2012) and Live at Wendells (2015) all feature McLane and Barwick as his featured players.
One Foot In is an achievement of sorts, as Justis attests to when he introduces the title song in McLane’s Three Seals Studio, fully aware of the redolence in his words, “It’s only taken us six decades to get our second CD out.” What follows is a varied yet consistent collection of original tunes from Justis’ canon of musical ideas and influences. When he’s storytelling and using familiar folk music conventions, the results are often remarkable.
Though Justis, who often finds himself stranded between musical styles, is fairly pragmatic about his career at this stage, he’s never given up the dream of making it in music. “I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied or finished until I can’t sing or play anymore,” he says. “I just keep trying. I need to have that to strive for.”
As if it were icing on the cake, Justis and his bandmates were also invited to open similarly at Mondavi in November for Joan Baez in her final tour. “I remember hearing Joan Baez in 1968 in Vietnam on Armed Services Radio,” he says. “She was singing about the war and here I’m in the war. That’s a big deal after all these years.”