Let me tell you, I would not have imagined when I left Fyffe High School in 1971 that five decades later I’d be sitting on my sofa watching a guy from Geraldine playing guitar with Lynyrd Skynyrd on the network’s New Year’s Eve special. 

Damon Johnson finds it equally unbelievable that he is THAT guy. 

“I’ve had a lot of memorable gigs in my life, Damons says. “I’ve played giant festivals around the world — Europe, South America, Japan. I’ve played Red Rocks, Madison Square Garden. But let me tell you something: Ringing in the New Year on CBS at the stroke of midnight, playing ‘Free Bird’ live on television… that was not in the playbook ever, you know? What a thrill.”

Damon’s down-to-earth gratitude for all his incredible experiences shines like a spotlight when you speak with him. Born in Macon and having grown up in Monroeville, Alabama, he moved to Geraldine in the 10th grade in 1979. Coming from a musical family, he gravitated toward the guitar as a teen, though he’d taken piano lessons and played trombone in the marching band. 

“About the time my high school friends and I all started discovering Led Zeppelin, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, all that stuff, I got pretty serious about it. I fell in love with it.”

He and his friends started a garage band, and his social life revolved around music. 

“Once people heard me play the electric guitar, you would have thought Eric Clapton had landed in DeKalb County,” he laughs. “And I can’t overstate what that did for my confidence. So many nice people saying nice things, encouraging things. I quickly put a band together. So that was kind of how things got started for me in Geraldine.” 

At the local convenience store, Damon read music magazines and was consumed with everything about the bands of the time, never dreaming he would make a living the same way.  

Today Damon lives in Nashville — a long, rich journey between now and his Geraldine days. He not only plays with the legendary Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, but he also has resurrected a band he started in the early 90s called Brother Cane, whose albums led to three Number 1 singles, and who toured with names such as Aerosmith, Van Halen and Lynyrd Skynyrd. And he is a solo artist who writes, records and performs his original work.

“Lynyrd Skynyrd tours about 50 or 60 shows a year, and that gives me plenty of time to scratch my artistic itch and write new songs,” Damon says. ‘I love writing, I love making recordings. I’ve made a lot of records over the past 30 years and been in a few other projects I could have never, ever imagined. I’m really grateful.”

The impressive acts Damon has written for, recorded with, or performed with include Ted Nugent, Sammy Hagar, Stevie Nicks, Faith Hill and…Alice Cooper? 

It makes me smile when you even mention Alice Cooper,” says Damon. “It was 2004 when I started playing with Alice. And that next year, both my parents had a chance to come and see me play and meet Alice. They couldn’t have been more thrilled to meet him and talk about those early days when they were alarmed to see his album covers in my room. Alice loves it when anybody comes up and says, ‘We thought you were crazy.’ But Alice is a role model in terms of the footprint he is leaving as a true artist, committed to writing and recording and making records. That guy’s never put on a bad show. And he’s a great husband, great father. It’s family first.”

Most folks don’t know that Alice Cooper is an extremely good golfer. In fact, Damon took his clubs on tour with Cooper’s band because the group hit the links most days when on the road.

Though known as a rock artist, Damon made a foray into the world of country music as well. After all, living in Nashville and not dipping his toe into country music would be like living in The Bronx and not going to a Yankees game.

“Country music was always a part of my listening experience as a kid,” Damon says. “Every bit as much as rock music was, because my parents were very much steeped in country. I’m so grateful that my dad always played records by the all-time greats. You know, the Mount Rushmore of great male country artists: Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson. So that was always kind of bubbling beneath my burgeoning love of rock and hard rock. I’ve always been able to add a little of that to whatever band I’m playing in. I’m not a great country player, because I have a different measuring stick of what that means. A lot of that has to do with the equipment you have, the amplifiers you use, the guitars you have. But I’m never afraid to grab a guitar and get in there and see what I can come up with.”

That musical heritage was on full display in 2007 when Damon helped form the country music band Whiskey Falls. “We played a good bit around Alabama and the Southeast,” he says. “We gave it a fully committed effort for two years, 2007 and 2008. It’s another one of those bands that I was in that was just so close to punching through to that next level. And you know, promotion challenges, management challenges, record company challenges —something’s always going to interfere with your goals and your progress, unfortunately. But country music is for sure a part of what I do.”

The variety of acts Damon has worked with makes his career a bit unusual. He can play with just about anyone, anywhere. In 2011 this versatility created an opportunity for Damon to play with  legendary Irish rock group Thin Lizzy. 

“I saw Thin Lizzy when I was living in Geraldine in high school,” Damon recalls. “It literally changed my life. I was familiar with ‘The Boys Are Back in Town.’ That was such a big song on the radio. But they had such an incredible catalog of fantastic guitar riffs. And the rhythm section, how they played together … the songs had a different groove than any of the other rock music I was listening to. I didn’t know at the time that was some of the Celtic Irish influence.” 

Thin Lizzy’s repertoire of powerful songs, their musicianship, and the stage presence of the band led by singer Phil Lynott made an impression on the Geraldine boy. “I think the thing I’ve been most attracted to, you could say addicted to, my whole life is the energy of a great song with a great singer and a great guitar player,” he says. ‘I mean I’m as much a sucker for it right now as I ever was.”

The opportunity to join Thin Lizzy came while Damon was touring with Alice Cooper. “So I’m playing with Alice, and we do a show in Dublin,” he says. “The lineup that night was Def Leppard and Alice Cooper, and Thin Lizzy was opening. I didn’t know this at the time, but they were getting ready to need a replacement for one of the guitar players. They saw me play a couple of shows, I got back home the following week, and the guitar player Scott Gorham calls my house. I used to have posters of Scott Gorham on my wall!”

The call presented the opportunity of a lifetime. “He said, ‘I know you got a great gig with Alice, but we need somebody and your name is on a very short list. Is it something you would have any interest in?’” Damon recalls the conversation. “I’ve learned over the years … I mean, Paul McCartney could call me and offer me a gig and I’d say, ‘Paul, I appreciate the call, but I’m going to have to talk to my wife first.’

Of course, Lynda knew how much I loved Alice,” Damon continues. “My whole family loves Alice. But she said, ‘Damon, if you don’t take this opportunity to go have that experience and play those amazing Thin Lizzy songs, you’re going to regret it.’”

And so Damon joined the group, touring with them for three years before the band made a significant transition. “We wanted to write and record new music that sounded like Thin Lizzy,” he says, “but we knew it wasn’t right to call it Thin Lizzy without the great Phil Lynott, who, if you know the history of that band, Phil passed away in 1986 and he was Thin Lizzy. He wrote those songs. He was the singer, bass player, rock star and handsome boy. So, our new group, Black Star Riders, kind of got my songwriting chops back up, because I was writing with Scott Gorham, the guitar player, and Ricky, the singer. Well, I did that for about five years, and the only place we were really building any momentum was on another continent. We were in Europe a lot, and I was starting to get fatigued. I don’t live over there. I live here, and my family’s here.”

Part of the tapestry of Damon’s life has been meeting and performing with his heroes, but another important piece of his story is his desire to create his own material. Since his Brother Cane days, Damon knew performing his own songs allowed him to sing about things he could relate to and believe in. “I’m so proud of my writing,” he says. “I feel my writing has gotten better as I’ve gotten older. And why not? It’s like anything else you do. The more you do it, the goal is to get better. And I’m so much more comfortable in my own skin.”

And so in 2018 Damon decided to focus on his own material, playing with people he’s met in Nashville and recording several solo records.

The intersection of his path and Lynyrd Skynyrd both fulfilled an unimaginable dream and brought mixed emotions. His first show with the band was in July 2021.

You know, the circumstances surrounding my playing with the band are not ideal, because I was the guy they called when legend Gary Rossington, the last surviving member of the original band, had had his second heart attack,” Damon says. “The band had already had to reschedule tour dates two different times because of the pandemic. And Lynyrd Skynyrd is a big organization. You’ve got staff, road crew, managers, booking agents, truck drivers, production people. And all of these people had been out of work for almost two solid years.”

The leaders of the group wanted to take care of their staff and fans, so they booked about 28 shows just before Rossington had a heart attack. They knew Damon from Brother Cane and knew he could handle the job.

“Gary remembers me following him around those arenas and amphitheaters back in the early 90s, just wanting to pick his brain or ask him a question about his guitars or how to write song,” Damon recalls. ‘And he was always super gracious. I started filling in and the hope was that Gary would play whenever he felt like it. He did come a few times, and it was awesome. I was honored and thrilled to help out. Sadly, Gary left us March 5th of last year. It was difficult, because nobody knew really what would be the next step.”

Rossington’s family told the band that the show should go on and that the songs are bigger than any one member of the group. So they kept playing throughout 2023 — and they’ll keep performing as long as the fans want them. 

If the fans keep coming to the shows, if the band continues to give first-class performances with some of the best musicians that could possibly gather on that stage, then it’s going to honor those original band members,” Damon says.

“Every night we play, I love to see the joy on everyone’s faces,” he says. “I’m thinking, ‘That dude right there is in his 70s; that one’s in his 30s; that kid right there might be in junior high school.’ They’ve got their fists in the air, and they’re singing every word to ‘Free Bird,’ every word to ‘Gimme Three Steps,’ ‘Sweet Home Alabama,’ ‘Simple Man.’ There’s something different that happens with these Skynyrd songs. They are the soundtracks of people’s lives. And there’s almost this … I can’t come up with a better description than they’re almost like gospel songs. It’s like going to church and singing ‘How Great Thou Art’ or something. People get moved.”

With multiple projects in the works at any given time, Damon doesn’t see retirement in the cards.

This is my life’s passion,” he says. “It’s the reason I get up in the morning. I think some of that DeKalb County work ethic has really served me well.”

Despite his professional success, Damon’s greatest sense of pride comes from his close, blended family. He met his first wife at Geraldine High School, and they have three children. His second wife, Lynda, met Damon at a Brother Cane performance in Detroit. Lynda and Damon have two children together. Add to that two grandchildren. 

“I drive my musician buddies crazy,” he laughs. ‘You know we used to be sitting there looking at magazines and looking out the window at girls walking by, and now I’m just showing everybody videos on my phone of my grandkids and saying, ‘Look, he’s got an ice cream cone!’”

You can find Damon’s music from his many projects on Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music, and most other sources. “There’s a ton of music people can listen to,” he says. “I also have a monster power trio called Damon Johnson and The Get Ready, and we put out one record back in 2021.

“It’s such a thrill,” he adds, “to be a part of so many great projects. It’s hard to get bored.”For Damon’s upcoming tour dates and to discover more of his great music, visit damonjohnson.com. For Lynyrd Skynyrd tour dates and info, visit lynyrdskynyrd.com.