Who? Which Mike Lawson?

There is no shortage of people named Mike Lawson, not even in the music world. There is literally an exhaustive, perhaps exhausting, number of people named Mike Lawson. Other musicians, photographers, fishermen, other authors and just loads and loads of Mike Lawsons from all walks of life.

This particular musician named Mike Lawson has recorded and/or performed with former members of Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna, The Tubes, Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tower of Power, Jerry Garcia Band and others. His ever-evolving “and Friends” album lineup is filled with musicians collaborating from around the world, including contributions from guest artists Vassar ClementsBobby Cochran, Merl Saunders, Jorma Kaukonen, Bob Welch, Joe Louis Walker, John McEuen, Dennis Robbins, Phil Keaggy, Pete Sears, Scott GubermanMichael Cleveland, Phil Madeira, Jack Casady, Dianne Davidson, and Will Kimbrough. He even toured and performed with the eclectic Eugene Chadbourne

Ticket to Fly – Lawson & Friends Vol. 

Ticket to FlyThe 1998 debut album, Mike Lawson and Friends, Vol 1. Ticket to Fly (Sumertone Records) featured performances by mentor Merl SaundersJorma KaukonenBob WelchJoe Louis Walker, and Dennis Robbins. Lawson was the only other artist to release an album on Sumertone Records, Merl’s label. The cover art was created by Stanley Mouse

What happened after Ticket to Fly was released in 1998?

Further volumes became delayed indefinitely as his performing, recording and production career intentionally stalled in the late 90s. Lawson dove into understanding the needs of his daughter, Kelly, diagnosed on the autism spectrum when “Ticket to Fly” released, and sorting out an alternative musical path for a while. He performed in dozens of shows with/and or opening for Merl Saunders, around the San Francisco Bay Area, and there were some in-store appearances and solo gigs here and there. There were also a couple of shows with Eugene Chadbourne and others, and he did an occasional guest appearance in New York, Nashville, Los Angeles and other cities with friends, but he was “off the road,” and not releasing more albums during that period.

He contributed to the 2001 album Gifts from the Dead, with Vince Welnick, Merl Saunders, Pete Huttlinger, Vassar Clements, and Fred Bogert. Fred had produced “Ticket to Fly.” Mike continued songwriting, and launched a music industry book, video, and periodical publishing company. This allowed him to stay close to home and be a dad. He continued writing and recording dozens of demos for new songs. He recorded with Vince Welnick, and Vassar Clements, for the two singles not released until 2019.

He wrote liner notes for a Les Paul album, and Merl Saunders’ “Keepers” album. Additionally, two of his songs were used in the independent Two Rats Film production “Goodbye GuyGuy” in 2002. That same year, Merl had a debilitating stroke. It was difficult seeing his mentor in such shape, and Mike played the Haight Street Fair that year with Merl’s son Tony and a large supporting cast of musicians in honor of Merl. In 2003, he played his last HSF fair show, with Vince Welnick, Melvin Seals, and many more, in which Merl made an appearance on stage. In 2004, he played his last Merl Saunders birthday show at Great American Music Hall in SF, CA, 

Mike relocated briefly to the Lake Shasta area of Northern California in 2004. In 2006, he experienced the devastating loss of his close friend Vince Welnick to suicide. He decided it was time to move home to Nashville, TN in December, 2006. The following November, his former bass player and good friend Stan Rawls succumbed to depression and took his own life. These two deaths put Mike into a stalemate musically, and he began performing online live streamed Internet audio concerts under a non-de-plum as “Von Johin.” He released an album on LocoBop records under the cartoon bluesman charecter’s name, and for about six years did not perform outside of that virtual venue. In 2011, he pieced together Hooteroll? to pay tribute to the origins of the music of Merl Saunders and Jerry Garcia. Also in 2011, he again began making solo appearances at festivals, hosting the Grateful Garcia Gathering in Wisconsin for three years. 

The following year, however, Mike was dealt another personal hit when his best friend Bob Welch shot himself. For the next few years, he helped care for his widow Wendy, pushed through a divorce, but continued to perform dozens of Hooteroll? shows this time instead of retreating into his home studio. Wendy passed in November 2016. Mike married Shannon Kebschull in March 2019, and is continuing his own long, strange trip.

What is this Mike Lawson doing now?

Photograph by Michael Weintrob for Instrument Head collection

After the long break, he released two singles and albums in 2019. The first, to commemorate the 20th anniversary recording of his cover of “Why Don”t We Do It in the Road?,” featuring Vince Welnick, recorded in San Francisco in 1999. The second, “Mystery Train,” featuring Vassar Clements on fiddle, recorded at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio B in 1998. 

In what he calls his “tabula rasa moment,” these songs and his collection of songwriting demos were released from the previous decades. They were released on Vol 2. – Some Songs in the Key of Poe,” and Vol 3. – Outtakes and Oddities. These “in the raw” demos showed his writing process for what would have been selections for new album projects had life’s cards been dealt differently.

2020 and beyond…

In 2020, he released six singles of covers he loves, as Side A/B “digital 45s” on April 10, 15, 20. Afterward, his next “& Friends”album, “Evidence Concerning Apparitions” was released May 1, 2020. Two dozen additional musicians contributed from around the world.

After releasing “Evidence,” Mike also released more singles including “Your Life or My Money” about attitudes and politicization of a pandemic by skeptics, anti-vaxxers, and just plain selfish people.

On June 6, 2020 he worked again with Grammy-winner Michael Cleveland and next released the classic Rev. Gary Davis song, “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” to express his losses of friends and family, and the massive deaths facing the world from the virus. Next, at the end of 2020, transitioning into 2021 shut-in from COVID-19 disruptions, he continued to write and record. Both singles are on his January 2021 album release, “More Wonders of the Visible World.”

Once You Leave Home (You Can Never Return), video released March 5th to YouTube from his album 3200 W 22nd Court, released December 2021. Another video single, “Benedict Rides” was released to YouTube May 15, 2021.

“Mike Lawson & Friends Lay It All Down” was released Sept 2022, featuring a cover of Bob’s Fleetwood Mac song by that name, and nine other songs including three new originals. Guest appearances include Phil Madeira, and Jack Casady, Phil Keaggy, Pete Sears, Gary Talley, John McEuen and more.

“Ever Trust a Prankster?” was released on Halloween 2023, friends again included Joe Montague, Tyra Juliette, Phil Madeira, Phil Keaggy, Pete Sears, Gary Talley, with the addition of Ojo Taylor and Bob Bralove. 

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