Long-time bluegrass photographer and LBG Alumni Award-winning radio host Becky Johnson spent years capturing bluegrass music through her camera lens. A staff photographer for Merle Fest for fifteen years, she published the book Inside Bluegrass: twenty-years of bluegrass photography, giving viewers an intimate look at bluegrass festivals.
Among her credits, which include photos featured in US News & World Report, Bluegrass Unlimited, The Bluegrass Situation, and Bluegrass Today, is her cameo in the 1992 bluegrass documentary High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music.
Johnson spoke openly with The Bluegrass Standard about growing up in Concord, Massachusetts, where she spent her youth drawn to the radio, listening to country & western and bluegrass music.
“I remember dialing in on my step grandfather’s shortwave radio that he made himself, and dialing in all these shows from Chicago, West Virginia and WSM in Nashville,” adding that seeing episodes of the Beverly Hillbillies and the Andy Griffith Show ignited her passion for bluegrass.
She experienced a eureka moment when her boyfriend took her to a local watering hole called The Sticky Wicked Pub in Hopkinton, MA, to see Don Stover & The White Oak Mountain Boys.
“My then-boyfriend Roger took me to see Don Stover one night up close! Wow, I found it! The music I loved so much had a face, and I met him, and he was so kind. Don Stover was Bluegrass Royalty! The last time I saw Don was in 1996, in September in Owensboro, KY, at our annual bluegrass convention,” Becky recalled, adding that he was terminally ill with cancer and that they hugged and talked for the last time. “Death comes to all,” she said with a philosophical air, “but becoming daring yet vulnerable enough to receive love from my heroes -- I liked the feeling!”
Inheriting her uncle’s Pentax camera, she fell in love with photography. By the mid-1970s, Johnson, a novice photographer, began to immerse herself in New England’s bluegrass festival scene, making friends with Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, The Osborn Brothers, JD Crowe, Peter Rowen, Sam Bush, and many others.
“I had my own dark room and would print up pictures and bring them with me to the festivals and give them to musicians I had met before,” Johnson recalled, adding, “I got some photo jobs because of that.”
Johnson told The Bluegrass Standard about her promise to the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. “As I stood there in front of Mr. Monroe, he gently took my hands into his and pulled them straight to his heart. ‘I want you to promise me, Becky, you’ll do all you can to keep bluegrass going strong long after I'm gone.’
“Of course, I agreed. His blue eyes were piercing yet filled with tears. We just stood there in silence. It seemed as if a portal to bluegrass music opened at that moment, and I could see the light in Bill Monroe's eyes.
Bill continued with me, ‘I know you'll know just what to do, you'll do the right thing.’ So saith the Father,” said Becky reverently.
Balancing her passion for broadcasting and photography, Johnson, known throughout the bluegrass community as “Mrs. Bluegrass,” can be heard every Tuesday spinning bluegrass and country classics during her show Panhandle Country on North Carolina’s - WHUP radio.
Reflecting on her radio career, she said, “I began hosting my own weekly live bluegrass show in 2007. First Generation Bluegrass Show was my initial show, then I created another music show, Honky Tonk Merry Go Round, which featured Classic C&W, Cajun [and] Zydeco tunes.”
Excited about 2024, she plans to re-publish her book and has her site set on the prestigious IBMA award. “I’m in the running for IBMA: Best Bluegrass Photographer, 2024. This award is the first time that bluegrass photography is getting its own legitimate recognition!”
During our conversation, she explained that she was not pleased with the results of her book Inside Bluegrass.
“I'd like to rework, update, and re-publish "Inside Bluegrass" from 1998. The quality of the prints was substandard: too soft. I refused to have them (Empire Publications) edit any of my pictures. So, everything is full frame.” Becky also shared her new passion for various art mediums. “I'm consumed with creating felted objects, painting or making cool sculptures,” she laughed.
With many stories to tell about her time as a bluegrass festival photographer, meeting the Father of Bluegrass and the promise she made to him is her most cherished.
“My vow to keep bluegrass alive is an ongoing daily routine. My weekly live radio on WHUP 104.7 features bluegrass, cool classic country and western [and] classic tunes from the past. It all flows in together.”