By Kelly Baughman
If you haven’t heard his soulful original songs, listened to his deep New Orleans drawl, or heard his one of a kind, infectious laugh, then you haven’t met Johnny Barbato. This longtime staple in the music scene along the Gulf Coast has been in the game for nearly 40 years, and has become one of the most beloved local musicians around. While he has taken his music on the road for years, his love of the Gulf Coast called him back home. And while fans of his music still love his original sound, Barbato says big changes are in the works.
Barbato, a native of New Orleans, came to the area in the mid 70’s in search of becoming what he calls a “surfing hippy”. Once here, Barbato found a crowd that surfed, worked in construction during a booming time along the coast, but most importantly, played music. “I had always played, and I thought I was pretty good, but then I met these guys. I knew how good they were, and all I wanted to do was improve enough to hang with them,” Barbato said.
While he had dabbled in the industry and considered himself a good musician, Barbato said the course of his entire music career changed one fateful night at the original Flora-Bama Lounge. “It was the late 70’s, and I walked in one night to see Ken Lambert on stage. It was just him and a guitar, and after listening for a few minutes, he just paralyzed me,” Barbato recalled.
Barbato said Lambert’s every word left him on the edge of his seat, giving him chills. “When you can strum one chord and say one line and have the attention of every person in the room, that’s when you know you’ve got something special. To this day, I think he is one of the best folk singers that has ever lived.”
Barbato made it his mission to study and infuse what he learned from Flora-Bama artists like Lambert, Jay Hawkins, and Jimmy Lewis into his own style of music. “Lambert’s folk music was second to none, Hawkins was one of the best outlaw country artists I’ve ever known and should’ve been a household name, and Lewis’s way of playing the blues was unique and mesmerizing. I tried to incorporate all of those things I learned from them into the music I wrote,” Barbato said.
In the early 2000’s Barbato got his big break when he signed a record deal and hit the road to showcase his soulful songwriting and high energy band, opening for acts like The Black Crowes, the Allman Brothers, David Allen Coe, and BB King. “We traveled all over the country doing shows and pretty much living the dream. But I always missed home. The Gulf Coast was calling my name, and I knew it was time to come home,” Barbato said.
Since then, Barbato has continued to play with his band The Lucky Doggs, a band that has survived for nearly 30 years. When asked about the secret to his band’s long term success, Barbato said, “You don’t see many bands around here that survive a nearly 30 year run. They come. They go. Our band has stood the test of time because we believe in the music and we are doing what we love. We have been through a lot together, and that makes us like family.”
You can still catch Johnny Barbato and the Lucky Dogs playing their unique style of rock, country, and blues from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, to Gulf Shores, to Orange Beach, and Perdido Key on any given night, but Barbato said big changes are coming for him and his music. “I’ve come to the point in my life where I can sit back and reflect on my rights and wrongs. I have lived quite an adventure, and since raising my daughter for the last 8 years, I’ve learned what is really important. It’s time for me to sit down and write the best music of my life. If I can get half of what I feel and what I’ve learned into a song, I know it is something I’ll be really proud of.”
In addition to his rekindled love of songwriting, Barbato said he intends on opening a music venue of his own in Elberta, AL by the time winter rolls around. “I bought a big piece of land that has a giant barn in the back. The minute I laid eyes on it I knew I wanted to open a joint that caters to music and a generation of people who understand exactly what makes music good,” said Barbato.
Construction and renovations on what will be known as ‘Johnny B’s’ is in the works now, and Barbato said you can expect it to be an open air venue with a 70’s hippy joint meets hanging out at that one friend’s place who always has the best party, vibe. “I want it to be really relaxed, and I want people to be able to come here to chat and connect without all the noise of a jukebox, pool table or sports on the TV. We will be playing great music on vinyl, which nobody really does anymore. I want it to reflect the nostalgia of a great era,” Barbato said.
In addition to hearing classic music on vinyl, Barbato said he will have live music from some of the area’s greatest, including Lambert, Hawkins, Lewis, and of course, The Lucky Dogs. Johnny B’s will be open Thursday through Sunday from 2 pm to 10 pm.
To catch Johnny Barbato’s solo show or to see him with The Lucky Doggs, check out his upcoming schedule on the Johnny Barbato & The Lucky Doggs Facebook page.
Photo credit Dee Sanders Horton