10 Years vet Ryan ‘Tater’ Johnson gets high on life, music, God

Ryan "Tater" Johnson
J-Birds: Kris Watkins (drums), Aaron Zecchini (guitars/sax) Ryan "Tater" Johnson (guitars/vocals), Cody Hensley (keys, trumpet) and Steve J. Young (guitars/vocals).

Don’t try to tell Ryan “Tater” Johnson that God isn’t real.

The Ties That Bind UsHe might not fight you over it, but he’ll certainly laugh in your face. The man upstairs, after all, has been looking out for the former guitarist for the rock band 10 Years since before he got sober, and during the roughest patches of his sobriety, God has always been there. The formation of his latest band, J-Birds … the house in which he lives and records other musicians … the community he calls home — all of it was an answered prayer, Johnson told The Ties That Bind Us recently.

“It wasn’t long ago that I was going through a divorce and had nowhere to go, and I didn’t know what to do,” Johnson said. “I didn’t have any money, and I couldn’t go live with my mother, even though I love my mother. I was dealing with a lot of different things, including some health problems — including a broken back and a collapsed lung — so I was basically three-quarters dead.

“Those were some dark days, and basically, I just prayed: ‘God, just shine me a light, because I don’t know what to do.’ And I woke up the next morning to a message from Aaron Zecchini, who wanted me to produce his band, Deadbeat Scoundrels. I clicked on his Facebook page to check him out, and the first thing I saw was a post saying, ‘Somebody should rent this house I’m sitting in now.’ I started yelling, ‘Mom! Look! God just answered my prayer!’

“The night before, I had gone to bed praying, begging God to shine a light because I didn’t know what to do or where to go, and that’s when God showed up,” he added. “That’s where God really likes to show up, when you call out to him and say, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ The short answer is everything. And when you ask, ‘How do I make it right?,’ God says, ‘Follow this way.’”

In choosing to go down that path, Johnson has found a new way of life through faith that’s become the moral compass he lacked for so long. He’s experienced the fame, he’s traveled the world, he’s helped sell millions of records — but none of it, he said, can compare to the serenity he’s found on the other side of addiction and alcoholism thanks to the God of his understanding.

“Now, I’m living for Him,” he said. “I go to a great church — Mountain Assembly Church of God in Jellico, which is an old-school, Pentecostal, full band, hollering, screaming, speaking in tongues kind of place. It’s the rock ‘n’ roll of churches. I kind of grew up Baptist, but when I moved to Knoxville, we went to a Pentecostal church, and I remember thinking, ‘These people are insane, but I love it!’ They were dancing so hard it looked like a mosh pit, and I remember thinking, ‘This is amazing.’

“It’s the same feeling, but it’s better, because you’re in the house of God. Nobody’s on their cell phones, there aren’t any drunks staggering around, and everybody’s in the spirit. I remember I felt that when I was a kid, when I got saved one night at my granny’s church. I’ve never forgotten that, and it’s the same feeling I get now as a grown man, 30-something years later.”

Baptism of a rock 'n' roll spirit

Ryan "Tater" JohnsonIt’s serendipitous, almost, that the same grandmother at whose church he got saved also provided Johnson’s first introduction to music. Originally from Nashville, Johnson discovered an acoustic guitar at his grandmother’s house, and as he spent more time with her after his parents’ divorce when he was a child, he began experimenting with it.

“I remember hitting my first chord on it and thinking, ‘There’s no way people actually do this!’” Johnson said. “I remember my Aunt Glenda — she was amazing and talented and played in church and stuff — looked at me and said, ‘Don’t worry. You’ll get used to it.’ That was really where it started.”

By the time he was a teenager, the family had moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, and Johnson was partial to the heavier sounds of rock ‘n’ roll, especially the thrash-pop sounds of contemporary punk bands like The Offspring and Rancid. A double bill of both groups at a long-gone Knoxville venue, the Electric Ballroom, changed everything, he said.

“It floored me, and it was the greatest night of my life,” Johnson said. “They were so loud! I had never heard anything so loud in my entire life, and I think I might have even crowd surfed. It was a culture shock for a kid who had never really been out of the house much.”

The other memory of that night was lurking around the club after the show and discovering some of the members of Rancid just hanging out. At 14 and fearless, he walked right up to them and was effusive in his praise about the show and their music.

“They just kind of laughed and said, ‘Rock on kid,’” he said. “I remember the way they looked at me, because when you start touring enough and get to a certain level, you start seeing kids do that same thing. I remember being on tour with 10 Years, and some fans would start crying and shaking and wanting to hug us. Music helps a lot of people, man.”

Around the same time, he earned the nickname that’s still a more familiar moniker than his given name. As a ninth-grader in a Christian school, his Bible teacher’s brother was also named Ryan.

“But he said, ‘Everybody used to call him Tater,’ and as soon as I said, ‘That’s stupid,’ that’s what everybody started to call me,” he said. “The teacher was really cool, and when he saw I didn’t like it, he told everybody that if they called me that, they would get detention. But they ended up calling me that anyway.”

The band gets together

Ryan "Tater" Johnson

Guitarist Ryan "Tater" Johnson goes airborne while playing with 10 Years, circa 2009.

That teacher was also the first authority figure who tried to steer Johnson away from music of a darker bent. At the time, Johnson was an enthusiastic fan of Nirvana, and when the teacher discovered Johnson’s “Incesticide” tape, he offered a dire warning.

“He said, ‘Son, that’s the devil’s music,’ and I just wanted to fight him on it,” Johnson said. “But in some aspects, he might have been right. I think there is a dark force that goes on in some music. I don’t know that Nirvana was necessarily ‘devil’s music,’ but if you look at modern music, some of it is indeed dumbing down our culture and our society and teaching people to value the things of this world more than the soul. So I think there’s some truth to what he said, for sure. And I was probably aware of it at the time, but then I got lost in the haze of the drunken rock star life.”

His introduction to 10 Years was actually an underwhelming affair, however. He knew drummer Brian Vodinh through school and recognized Vodinh’s immeasurable talent. When the pair ended up working in close proximity to one another — Johnson at Kroger, Vodinh at a pizza joint — they struck up a conversation about music, and Vodinh invited Johnson over to jam with his band.

“I showed up, and we jammed in his garage, but I didn’t really know the rest of the guys,” Johnson said. “We all just kind of met and got along, and we were just 18- or 19-year-old kids. I didn’t really think we had anything special, to be honest with you; I just thought it was fun. I had a girlfriend, was working full time and going to school, and I thought it would be fun to do for a while.

“I remember one night, we were rehearsing, and I was about over it. There were other things I wanted to do — not that I thought we were bad, I just didn’t know if it was worth continuing. But then we played this one song: ‘It’s On!’ by Korn, and it was on in that garage, and suddenly, it was awesome. It felt really good, and that’s when I thought, ‘I’m just going to wait and see what happens.’”

Another moment of serendipity: In 2006, Korn tapped 10 Years as one of the openers for its North American tour, and “It’s On!” was Korn’s opening song every night. Before they got to that level, however, 10 Years had to pay its dues in the East Tennessee music scene. When the band got its start in the late 1990s with Johnson, Vodinh, guitarist Matt Wantland and bassist Lewis Cosby, the group cut “Into the Half Moon” with original vocalist Mike Underdown. Released in 2001, it created a local buzz, but things with Underdown weren’t working, and the guys tried a young singer by the name of Jesse Hasek.

“I had sold Jesse a 10 Years CD before he joined the band, so that’s pretty funny,” Johnson said. “It didn’t work out with (Mike), so there was a change, and we jammed with Jesse at Matt’s house. He was trying to sing the old stuff, and he couldn’t really do it, so we just jammed on something new, and when he started singing, we knew: ‘That’s it. There it is.’ That was when we were all hungry young men.”

Fame, fortune and the fall

Ryan "Tater" Johnson

10 Years, with Johnson (foreground) again achieving lift-off.

With Hasek in the fold, 10 Years slowly building a fan base that flocked to the band’s melodic-but-heavy sound with enthusiasm. Releasing “Killing All That Holds You” in 2004 got the band noticed on a national level, and a contract with Universal Records led to the release of “The Autumn Effect” in 2005. The single “Wasteland” catapulted 10 Years to international stardom, peaking at No. 1 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart and No. 2 on the Mainstream Rock chart; two additional singles kept the band touring steadily as an opening act for bigger names.

“Division,” the band’s sophomore major-label effort, was the band’s most commercially successful album to date; landing at No. 12 on the Billboard 200, it sent 10 Years around the world, and that’s when Johnson's addiction began to ramp up speed as well.

“My dad was a Vietnam vet and drank a lot, and when he did, he was not a very nice person,” Johnson said. “It was pretty traumatic growing up, but while I used to think it was really bad, there were probably plenty of kids who had it way worse. After he spent a year in Vietnam, he was just mad, and he never found his way back to God like I did. That’s how we ended up in Knoxville — he and my mom divorced, and she got us out of there.

“In middle school and high school, I had friends who would smoke weed and get drunk, but I didn’t really mess with any of it. But I remember that the day we got the record deal, I said, ‘I’m gonna go get a big bag of weed.’ It really started then, and it progressed and progressed and progressed until I was just living in that world.”

There were plenty of good times — sharing weed with one of the members of Deftones in Germany, sitting in with that band on the song “Headup” at The International in Knoxville (a venue, ironically, that was once the Electric Ballroom, where The Offspring and Rancid began his love affair with rock as a teen), the fans who embraced 10 Years as carriers of the modern rock torch. The band left Universal after 2010’s “Feeding the Wolves,” and in 2015, 10 Years released “From Birth to Burial,” its sixth studio album and the last with Johnson as part of the lineup. He would part ways with the guys two years later.

“It was a blur through the last year with 10 Years, and I don’t know that there was an actual moment of, ‘Oh, this is my bottom,’” Johnson said. “I was so sick; I had overdosed and was really, really ill, and I was upset and felt betrayed by certain people. I had been unhappy for a long time, and anybody that knows me, knows I was unhappy creatively.”

His exit was rife with acrimony, and a lot has been bandied about in the metal press about whose fault his departure was. Johnson takes responsibility for his part in it — “At the end, I was sober off of alcohol, but I was awful. I wouldn’t have wanted to be around me, either,” he said. And there’s some measure of regret that personal relationships were soured by business decisions. But he can hold his head high, he said, that his personal path has been an honorable one.

“It had to go down the way it went down, and it makes me thank God that I’m surrounded by awesome people who are great and funny and don’t have the need to belittle me to feel better about themselves,” he said. “With my new band (J-Birds), that’s why we named our record ‘The High Road,’ because I’m not going to go after those guys. I’m not going to air out our dirty laundry for people to see, and I don’t want to alienate anybody who might like my music.”

A future to build on

Ryan "Tater" Johnson (right) with J-Birds vocalist/guitarist Steve J. Young, whom Johnson describes as his "musical soulmate."

Anybody expecting J-Birds to be a retread of 10 Years is in for a surprise, to say the least. From the reggae-influenced blues-rock of “Momma” to the rap-metal of “Hero” to the muscular prog elements of “Burn Bright,” “The High Road” is a swirling kaleidoscope of sound, but more than that, it’s a record of pure, unadulterated freedom.

And it was born, he said, from the cradle of the spirit into which he was delivered when he left drugs and alcohol behind entirely.

“I had quit drinking, but I was still doing other stuff,” he said. “Pills … cocaine … hallucinogens … it wasn’t hard to get my hands on it, because when you’re living that lifestyle, you’re surrounded by it. Rock ‘n’ roll is a bipolar world where it’s quiet for 20 hours of the day, but then you go play a big show, and it’s crazy, and then you get off stage, and it’s like spring break. Everybody who comes out to the show wants to get drunk and laid, and it’s like Vegas every night. You stay up all night and do blow to get up, do pills to come down, and then it’s a bunch of monkeys on your back, real quick.”

After leaving 10 Years and battling health problems, he was still relying on it to numb the pain, but he began to realize it was also numbing his mind. Simple tasks suddenly seemed complex, and his abilities as a wizard in the studio were dulled as well.

“One of the moments I remember is that I recorded me playing a guitar solo, and I was like, ‘That’s the best solo I ever did,’” he said. “But then I listened back to it, and the whole thing was out of tune — and here I thought it sounded amazing. That’s when I realized, this was childish stuff. If you’re going to be a producer, you’ve got to be sharp. You can’t be recording stuff that’s out of tune. You can’t be a professional and be blitzed on weed every day.”

For Johnson, life is about things that spark joy these days. He’s had the fame and the money, and while such trappings make life easier, they also make it more complicated. Even as a touring musician, he always felt better when he got out of himself and looked for opportunities to help others, and those lessons have followed him tenfold into sobriety.

“There was a moment when I left this big house I was living in with my ex-wife and left all of my worldly possessions, and I moved into this one here in Jellico, and I was sitting here, and I heard the voice of God,” he said. “I remember being on tour in Peru, and seeing kids digging through the trash just to find something to eat, and at the time, all I had was a bag of stale chips. And I really believe God came down and said, ‘Alright, Mr. Rock Star — you’re going to go in there and eat those stale chips and think about those kids in Peru and be thankful and really think about everything you’ve done over the last few years.’

“So I did that. I was still very generous, and I would just give money away, because I didn’t care, because I think a part of me always believed that if Jesus was here, he would help people. Now, this is my purpose and my testimony: I had all these things, and now I have nothing … but I have the Holy Ghost, and that’s the only high you ever need.”

Spiritual riches, spiritual rewards

Ryan "Tater" Johnson

Ryan "Tater" Johnson, left, on stage with J-Birds guitarist Aaron Zecchini.

“Nothing,” of course, is an understatement. He has his new band, which debuted live in October and is building up to a robust 2020 schedule. He has his studio, where he continues to work with area musicians who come to him for his wizardry behind a console.

“I get good stuff — some of it is diamonds in the rough, but I’m in the polishing business,” he said.

He has his sobriety, which is bolstered by his faith.

“I like being high on life and music and exercise and God,” he said. “I did all that other stuff for so long that I know there’s nothing down those roads for me. Back in October, J-Birds played in a bar and not one time did I want to go drink. There’s only one kind of high for me from now on, and that’s through God and church and that connection I have with the Holy Spirit.”

And he has his faith, which sustains him, strengthens him and lays out for him a future worth living. He may not always know what’s around the next corner, but he knows that whether it’s tribulation or triumph, he’ll be able to meet it with sound mind and body.

“God can absolutely make a way,” he said. “Look at where I am now — it’s this big house, and my rent is $200 a month. God has provided a way, because I would have never been able to afford anything like this, but God said, ‘There you go.’ And that was before I was going to church or praying or doing the things I do every single day now.”

Johnson knows that if he puts in the work, the blessings will come. Often, they’re on God’s timetable instead of his, and just because he lives in the light doesn’t mean life is always easy. But it is simpler, and it is honorable, and when he’s in his studio, working on music, he’s in communion with a power greater than himself.

“I’m glad I followed that light, because I would have stayed in the darkness, had I not,” he said. “Once you start listening for Him, the things of this world don’t really concern you. I wouldn’t trade this house for a million dollar mansion, because this is my million dollar mansion. I’ve got a live room, a control room, guitars, and I do most of my worship sitting in there working on music.

“I thank God every day I don’t have to live like that anymore, because I was a slave. J-Birds is so much fun and so creative, and I get so many other projects I get to work on, but more importantly than any of that are the messages I get on (social media). A few days ago, someone messaged me and told me that the (J-Birds) song ‘Hero’ inspired them, and that they’re looking to go back to church now. And that’s it, right there — just trying to help people.

“Every single day of my life, I get to do what I want to do, and I don’t have anybody in my life telling me to put on my trucker hat and go yell at people and be Tater,” he added. “I can wake up, have my coffee, come in here and work in the studio. I can go for a run, go to Walmart, go to church. Having that kind of freedom now, I really on appreciate it because I didn’t have it for so long.”