Chances are you don’t know who John Craigie is. But rest assured, John Craigie wants to know you. To be more specific, the 29-year-old folk singer wants to meet you, bust out an old guitar painted with rainbows and butterflies, play a show in your living room, lead a two-hour sing-along, and then crash on your couch.
“I never stay in hotels,” Craigie says. “Not when my fans are always willing to offer up their homes for the night. It’s a much more personal experience for both of us.”
For the last six years, Craigie has lived the life of a troubadour poet, sojourning across the country on an odyssey that has covered 49 of the 50 US states (only because you can’t drive to Hawaii). Averaging about 200 shows a year — mostly bars, coffee shops and yes, living rooms — Craigie travels from town to town armed with little more than a banjo, a ukelele, an assortment of harmonicas, and of course, his signature painted guitar.
“I know what you’re thinking, and no, I didn’t paint it myself,” Craigie is quick to clarify. Covered in trees, rainbows, peace symbols and butterflies, the guitar has been by John’s side since he started performing back in 2002, when he was a student at UC Santa Cruz. “A group of my fans painted it after a house-concert one night. It kinda spiraled out of control. But they were all having so much fun, I just let them go at it.”
The story of his painted guitar’s origin is a perfect analogy for what makes John Craigie such a special performer — there’s a give-and-take between Craigie and his fans that’s uncommon among modern performers. One of his most popular new songs, the hilarious “Chuck Norris’ Tears Cure Cancer (But Too Bad He Never Cries)” was written ten minutes before a show in Columbia, MO, with lyrics cribbed from the many Internet sites dedicated to charting the alleged powers of the ersatz Texas Ranger. “I was joking with some fans after a show that I’d basically written a song about everything under the sun. Someone asked ‘What about Chuck Norris?’ I said ‘Yes, of course,’ thinking we were still joking. Six months later, I’m back in Columbia, and before the show I get like five requests to play my Chuck Norris song! So I snuck backstage and googled ‘Chuck Norris’ and wrote the song during the opening act.”
It’s those off-the-beaten path towns, like Columbia, Sandpoint, Idaho and Rapid City, South Dakota that are Craigie’s bread and butter. “I’ve got some dedicated fans in the small towns.” Craigie says. “Last year I played a show during a flood Aberdeen, South Dakota. 2 feet of water and they closed the streets so cars could not come. About two songs in, as I was singing to the drenched collective who had made it early, and a guy burst through the doors, soaking wet. We all looked over at him and he yelled ‘I fucking swam here!’ Some people are big in Japan, but let me tell you, I’m huge in South Dakota.”
Those smaller towns, the ones that don’t see many musicians passing through — let alone a musician who will hang out and lead a sing along of Beatles tunes after the show — really seem to thrive on Craigie’s Folk/Americana sound, hilarious storytelling and intimate live performances. And Craigie thrives on meeting each and every one of them. His nation of fans has been cultivated slowly, one new friend at a time. In an age when many bands spend their off-hours adding hordes of strangers on MySpace, Craigie estimates he personally knows 75-80% of his MySpace and Facebook friends. “You can’t drive to the next town and surf the internet at the same time,” he says. “So I let the people add me. Usually the day after a show there will be all the new friends I met the night before waiting for me online.”
It’s his solo show — equal parts Bob Dylan and Mitch Hedberg — that usually wins over the converts. On any given night, a John Craigie show can range from hilarity to pathos and back again. The performer expertly intertwines humorous songs, like the aforementioned “Chuck Norris” and “Talking American Idol Blues” (which charts John’s ill-fated attempt to try out for the popular singing competition), comic banter bits like “Do Water into Wine” (a musing about how Jesus’ wedding day miracle must have been “like his Freebird”), and poignant songs and stories of the heartbreak and longing, like “Down the Tracks” and “Portland Basement,” which are culled from his years of travelling.
“It’s the blessing and the curse of life on the road,” Craigie says. “You meet all these amazing people in each town you stop at, but in the morning, you’re off to the next town. It’s bittersweet, but I know I’ll see them again the next time I’m passing through.”
Back in his home state of California, Craigie is taking a rare break from touring and preparing to record his sixth studio album this month. After that, it back to the road for another couch-surfing, cross country trek. “Half the time I’ll roll into a town not knowing where I’m going to stay after the show,” Craigie admits. “Maybe at an old friends’ house, or maybe a new one. You never know what’s going to happen. But it always works out. And that’s why I love this life so much.”
“Chuck Norris’ Tears Cure Cancer (But Too Bad He Never Cries)”