A song written by Twain Harte musician Doug Johnson has been recorded by a nationally acclaimed duo.
Folk artists Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen, residents of Bennington, Vt., chose Johnson’s “Holy Smoke” as the opening song on their 2012 compact disc “Home By Dark.”
Gillette and Mangsen have been traveling, performing and recording together since their marriage in 1989. Gillette rose to fame when Ian and Sylvia first recorded his song “Darcy Farrow” in 1966. Since then it has been recorded by more than 100 other artists.
Gillette’s songs also have been sung by such major artists as Iain Matthews, Garth Brooks, John Denver, Waylon Jennings, Anne Murray, Kenny Rogers, Nanci Griffith, Linda Ronstadt, Don Williams, Tammy Wynette, Jimmy Dale Gilmore and dozens of others.
Mangsen has been performing professionally since 1976. She plays guitar, banjo, concertina and mountain dulcimer and has been described as “one of the finest singers in American folk music.”
Together they have been featured on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and “Mountain Stage” and have performed across North America and Europe. They welcomed in the new millennium with a concert at the Kennedy Center for the Arts in New York.
Johnson’s song, based on his experiences with the Santa Ana winds and the devastating wildfires they cause in Southern California, came to the duo’s attention during one of the songwriting workshops they lead each year in Big Sur.
“You bring the material you’ve written and they critique it and make it better,” Johnson said. “It was two or three years before this song was finished.”
Johnson has been attending their Big Sur workshops since the first one was held eight years ago. Each session is limited to 15 participants. He plans to attend again in March at the new location in Santa Cruz.
At one of the earlier gatherings, Johnson gave the duo a demo recording containing six of his songs, including “Holy Smoke.”
“It was another year before they even responded, and another year before they said they might do something with it,” Johnson recalled. “About six months after that they said they had decided to record it, and then there was the actual recording, so it has been with them about four years. But they took it and I’m just happy they did.”
He was especially pleased that they placed his song at the beginning of the album.
“That’s a real treat for me,” he said.
He also has heard they often open their concerts with it.
Johnson said he has received “a small check for some royalties,” but the main satisfaction is being acknowledged as a songwriter, especially by people he has admired for decades.
“Them doing my song has come full circle,” Johnson said. “Back in my teens and 20s, ‘Darcy Farrow’ was my favorite song and I didn’t even know who Steve was at the time. Then to get involved with them and have them record it is really amazing.”
Johnson said he has been playing guitar and writing songs most of his life. Raised on Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, he later moved to San Diego and nearby Point Loma, where he spent most of his teenage years.
He met his wife, Joan, while living in Point Loma. After they married, they moved to Hawaii, where Johnson continued writing poetry and songs and studied slack key guitar.
Upon moving back to the mainland, they settled in the town of Julian in central San Diego County, where they first experienced the ferocity of the wind-fueled wildfires.
“It’s the brush and the Santa Ana winds,” Johnson said. “Every summer they would come, sometimes even in the fall and spring. One time about 100 homes burned.”
Despite years of frazzled nerves and evacuations, the power of nature gripped Johnson will awe.
“I’m amazed by the energy released in a wildfire — it’s spellbinding,” he said. “Joan was more nervous than I was. I’d be on the roof taking pictures and she’d be loading the old photographs into the truck.”
They ended up being evacuated four times. “One of the buzz lines in the song is ‘here we go again,’ ” Johnson said.
The title of his song was taken from an astonished remark he heard while watching one massive wildfire from atop a lookout point on an Indian reservation.
“You can see for miles up there, and while I was watching where the fire was going, two Indians came up,” Johnson said. “The first thing one of them said when they got to the top was ‘Holy Smoke!’ That’s also what gave me the idea to use more Native American images.”
After their last evacuation, the Johnsons decided it was time to get out.
“Our daughter had come here to attend Stanislaus State and when her baby was born we figured it was time to move up here,” Johnson said. “We’ve always loved Northern California and moved to Twain Harte in December of 2004.”
Johnson, 62, still holds a day job at Selby Cabinet Shoppe in Twain Harte but performs frequently at the open microphone sessions at Sonora Joe’s Coffee Shoppe and other locations.
He has written about 40 songs, with “Holy Smoke” being the first recorded by professional artists.
“I’m planning on doing a CD of my own, but I work real slow,” he said.