“I’m not James Taylor,” laughs Mansfield’s singer/songwriter Johnny Roquemore, known more for his humorous, bluegrass-inspired compositions than the smooth ballads delivered by tweed-clad Taylor. Growing up in DeKalb County, Roquemore picked up an electric guitar at 14 and with a neighborhood band made some “big noise,” he recalled. “All I ever wanted was an amp taller than me.” In college, he played frat parties in another band, but at the same time, he got hooked on acting and enjoyed a memorable run in the Atlanta theater scene, including a lead in an Alliance Theater production.
After graduation, Roquemore, the fun-raising musician turned actor, set his sights on Hollywood, hitchhiking cross-country with his girlfriend. They broke up on the way but finished the trip in San Francisco, after which he took a bus to LA. He found regular work at a restaurant where the staff was all musicians and delivered innovative entertainment alongside the burgers. It was a good living that supported his forays into movie and TV work. For two seasons, he was the harmonica player on a series called “The Magnificent Seven.” He met and married a California girl, but found he couldn’t make himself fit into the cutthroat Hollywood scene. They ended up with a horse farm in Malibu.
Thirty years passed, and Roquemore’s widowed dad Jack, the longtime Mansfield mayor, was in declining health on the family farm that dated back to a 1784 land grant from the Georgia colony. His wife voted to relocate their hay and horse venture, and so Johnny Roquemore came back to Georgia in 2002, having never intended to return. His dad died in 2003.
“It was a culture shock to return to Mansfield,” he said, “and for the first six months I had some anxiety and stress. Now I’ve come to appreciate it.” That is, until the Georgia Transmission Corporation proposed a high powered electric line through Mansfield threatening to cut directly across his 80-acre farm. The singer/songwriter, farmer and horseman now is becoming an expert on legal issues and negotiation. He’s even gotten a song out of it called “Sticks and Bricks.”
Almost anything can become a song in Johnny Roquemore’s mind. He laughed and said, “The question I hear most is, ‘Are you going to use that?’” He’s “on” all the time, looking for the next phrase or situation that might lend itself to musical interpretation. “I don’t think like everybody else,” he laughed. A subject like final wishes won’t be maudlin in Roquemore’s hands, but instead a little bit irreverent and boisterous. “Everything needs a little levity.”
His latest CD is named “Hub Junction,” in homage to what was once billed as the world’s largest rural bus station at the crossroads of highways 11 and 278. On it is the song “Largest Bus Stop,” a place where people “get on buses and never come back,” where they “bought tickets for their destiny.” That was Roquemore at one time: “If I could just get away from here,” he recalled.
The same CD boasts a tune called “Ruby Tuesday,” from an experience at the restaurant by that name in Tifton. “There I was, a 60-year-old man, and there she was, a waitress all of 22 years old, doing all those things a waitress will do to make you feel special,” he remembers. “My banjo player John Nipper said, ‘She knows how to make the old men smile,’ and that became a line in the song I wrote about this young girl. The sad part was that even though I’m 60 years old, I’m still looking at life through the eyes of an 18-year-old. I thought when I grew up, I’d be somebody else, but I’m not! That longing for youth is something everybody shares equally.”
Roquemore knows a few other things at his age, including the fact that he has less time to live than what he’s lived before and that he’s not going to change the world at this point. In the liner notes for the CD “Malibu Holiday,” he writes, “Age has a way of making everything so much more important.” In the song “Guy With a Guitar,” he says he “used to sing about hopes and dreams, now I sing about the past.”
In the same song, he says he’s “done everything I ever wanted to do.” Johnny Roquemore’s a spiritual man but not in the way of organized religion. He’s a seeker who believes each of us can manifest exactly the kind of life we want if only we can describe specifically what it should look like. “Too many people just blindly follow whatever is put before them,” he said. “But anyone can have the life they want if they know exactly what they want. I’ve done it.”
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.