John Craigie seems to be as comfortable with sentimental ballads as he is with humorous, understated singing and songwriting.
His newest studio album, "No Rain, No Rose," released in January last year, is full of beautiful melodies — "Virgin Guitar," "Highway Blood," "I Am California," "All the Salt" — that echo the truth, clarity and understanding of songwriters the likes of John Prine and Bob Dylan.
His live, laugh-out-loud ditties — about the somewhat questionable pictures on his phone or how hard it is to get laid at Folk Alliance in Kansas City — also get lots of attention on YouTube. The songs are clever, direct and sound like they're written on the fly, and they make connections with listeners.
A rather prolific songwriter, Craigie says it adds up over time.
"I think the road inspires a lot," he says. "Sometimes things will happen that might seem weird or awkward in the moment, then the next day I'll think they're actually good for a song, or sometimes I'll just be telling something to a friend and realize it would actually be pretty good on stage. It's hard to know what's going to be good and what isn't. I've definitely had times when I thought something was going to kill, then no one really could relate."
Craigie's "I Almost Stole Some Weed from Todd Snider" is his story of meeting Snider backstage at a club in Santa Cruz and the chain of folk singers made famous by an initial collaboration between Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.
"I'm a big music nerd, and I remember driving to that gig and thinking about the crazy, cool lineage of people that I respect and how much I didn't want to blow it at the show," Craigie says. "If you look at the first John Prine record, Kris Kristofferson writes something on it, and I believe Johnny Cash had written something for one of Kristofferson's albums. I knew John Prine had worked with Todd Snider."
Craigie and Snider didn't really hit it off at first, Craigie says.
The story goes that Craigie was fantasizing about how cool it would be if the torch in that line of songwriters was passed to him that night, but he and Snider barely talked and it seemed it wasn't meant to be. So when Craigie noticed a jar full of marijuana in the backstage room, he figured why not steal a little bit of his weed. He didn't, of course.
"We became friends after that song," Craigie says. "About a year later, he came on stage when I was playing at the High Sierra Music Festival in California and handed me a jar of weed. He's a very sweet guy, we've done some touring since then."
Craigie's "No Rain, No Rose" found its way to SoCal singer and songwriter Jack Johnson's ears, and he was invited to join Johnson on his "All The Light Above It Too" album tour last summer. The tour took them to the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California, and The Gorge in Washington state. Festival appearances included the Oregon Country Fair, Kate Wolf Music Festival, High Sierra, Burning Man and others. Along the way, Craigie earned acclaim from San Francisco Weekly, Seattle Times and AXS TV.
"I opened about 15 shows on that tour," Craigie says. "The shows were way bigger than what I normally do. It was a challenge to do my thing in front of the crowds, but they were great. I think a percentage of them actually listened to me."
Johnson more or less took Craigie under his wing during the tour, introducing him every night and doing his best to make the shows a good fit for everyone involved.
"A lot of people are busy with their own thing, but Jack was more supportive than most, and really cool about everything," Craigie says. "My usual thing is a dark room full of quiet people. Jack is a popular artist, and his music hits a wider range of audiences. He told me, 'Look, John, some of these people aren't really here to see me. They're just here to hear one of my songs. Don't be upset if they don't listen to you. Most people don't listen to me, either. They just wait until they hear their favorite song, and then they go home. It's just a reality.
"He's in a whole 'nother world than I am in, and that I'll probably never be in. Not to sell myself short, it's just a different path. But he definitely has good advice for general performances and stuff like that."
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Craigie attended college in Santa Cruz. He's made southeast Portland his home for four years now. He has five studio albums to his credit on his independent label, Zabriskie Point Records (named after a place in Death Valley), along with a couple of cover albums that were just for fun, he says, and a live album, "Capricorn in Retrograde, Just Kidding, Live in Portland," recorded at Mississippi Studios.
A new live recording — so far untitled — will be released sometime in March, he says. It was recorded at the Doug Fir Lounge.
While Craigie carries the flame of a legacy of classic folk singers and songwriters, his original stories and songs call him to his own path.
"I like what I'm doing," Craigie says. "In the end, it's just knowing your audience in each town and finding the right rooms to play for those people. I like playing for the small theaters. It's what's most conducive for my music. I just want my music to be heard, and if I can make a living at it without having another job, that's really all I need."