Former Town Pump owner tries his hand at music

Shelly Frome
Special to The Black Mountain News

Crisis manager Dan Johnston’s work as a singer/songwriter is motivated by his love for people and possibilities.

Johnston, then 23, came to the Swannanoa Valley in 1989 from Rockbridge County, Virginia. On a whim (and prodded by his mother), he enrolled at Warren Wilson College, where he studied sociology and theological concepts and was taken with the goodhearted people of this region and the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“But there was never a plan,” he said recently. “I never had a plan in my life.”

For a few years after college, he installed irrigation systems by digging ditches. Laid off, he switched to bartending at the Town Pump, a job he enjoyed. About nine years after he’d arrived, he got married, had two children, and wound up buying the bar.

One of the main reasons he stayed in Black Mountain was its hub of creativity. Taking note of all the different artists and art forms, he was equally impressed by the town’s musical heritage, one that fed his yearning to write his own country and blues songs.

“I had music at the Pump four or five times a week,” he said. “I supported original music, people out on the road trying to make a living. Great bands came here because they had a blast and always wanted to come back. Plus, we had that small-town living and mix of folks from every walk of life. Everybody could come in and feel it was their hometown bar.”

After he sold the place, he segued into mental health, starting with a nearby boarding school for at-risk boys that eventually closed its doors. He moved on to his current occupation.

“I absolutely love mobile crisis,” he said. “We respond to mental health and detox emergencies 24/7 and go to wherever that person is. The key is de-escalation, which I learned after nine years of owning a bar. You have to know how to take people aside when things get out of control. In managing a crisis, you need a lot of empathy and have to be reassuring. Everything’s based on perception. Whatever it is that’s going on is true to that person. I acknowledge their truth.”

“Besides,” he said, “I learned the best way to help yourself is to help other people.”

There is a link to helping others and writing songs, he said. His need to create music fed his need to reach out to listeners.

Johnston was inspired by all the original music that was performed at the Town Pump. He was encouraged by the ideas that kept coming to him, seemingly out of nowhere, such as the time a story about tracks in the snow revealed itself to him and he wrote it down. He played a set at White Horse Black Mountain and enjoyed it because the venue was a listening room where he could readily tell if his work was communicating.

“There’s an idea I’m working on right now,” he said. “The lyrics go, ‘Let me in your dreams tonight. Maybe there we can make things right.’ With my songs there’s no mystery going on. They’re very direct. That’s my outlet. Everybody has to have one. If you leave it inside, it’ll eat you up. Songwriting keeps me healthy and sane.”

Johnston is seeing some success. Frank Bang, a former associate of blues icon Buddy Guy, recorded Johnston’s “The Blues Don’t Care” as the title track of his new album, one that has been getting air play on satellite radio and on local public radio station WNCW-FM. An album of Johnston’s country and blues songs, sung by himself, is in the works.

“You don’t catch fish without getting the line wet,” he said. “So I’m taking my chances and throwing it out there.”

Call of the Valley is writer Shelly Frome’s periodic profile of people who are drawn to the Swannanoa Valley.