When Caleb Johnson was in middle school, a friend gave him a copy of “Queen Greatest Hits” on CD.
It wasn’t long before the Asheville, North Carolina, native fell in love.
“That just kind of took me over the moon,” Johnson says. “I wore that CD out and was completely blown away by Freddie Mercury’s voice and Brian May’s guitar playing.”
Since winning “American Idol” in 2014, Johnson has had the opportunity to cozy up to his own idols. Just last year, he had dinner in Las Vegas with May before Queen’s performance. Johnson made sure to tell him about that well-loved CD.
As he gears up for the release of his long-awaited sophomore album, “Born from Southern Ground,” Johnson is reflecting on all that’s happened in the whirlwind of the last five years. He says the new album feels more authentic than his post-“Idol” debut and weaves in influences of Queen and other bands he loved growing up, like Led Zeppelin and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Johnson will perform almost all the songs from the new album when he performs at Chameleon Club Thursday with his band, The Ramblin’ Saints.
Johnson’s journey to “American Idol” victory is one of persistence. He first auditioned in 2011, but was cut after Hollywood Week. He auditioned again in 2012, but was cut at the Top 24 selection. After taking a year off, he returned and auditioned for the season that would name him winner.
“The biggest lesson I learned and took away from that show is be yourself and trust your gut instinct on what is right and what you feel like you want to do,” Johnson says. “Because, 99.9 percent of the time, you’re going to be right.”
He’s deeply grateful for the opportunities that came from his “American Idol” exposure, from performing for audiences of 40,000 with Trans-Siberian Orchestra to doing an arena tour with KISS.
But he was never satisfied with “Testify,” the record he made shortly after “Idol” ended. He felt his debut didn’t accurately represent him as a person and was manufactured for commercial reasons rather than artistic ones.
“It was a very mechanical process, and it was not really in the means of like making it a piece of art,” Johnson says. “It really didn’t have my best interests in mind.”
That’s why he’s so excited about “Born From Southern Ground,” due out June 14. He took his time on this record — almost four years — and let his instincts take the lead.
“I didn’t really have control over that record. ‘Born from Southern Ground’ I have full control over everything,” Johnson says. “So, it’s my vision that you hear on this new album.”
That vision is an amalgamation of all the styles of music that influenced him, from soul to classic rock, gospel and the blues.
He bucked against the manufactured feel of his last record by recording this one live, meaning elements were recorded together like a performance rather than tracked individually. The result is more raw and has more heart.
He brought in trusted confidants Brian Sutton — his cousin’s husband and a Nashville bluegrass player — and Josh Sawyer, Johnson’s lead guitarist and longtime friend.
Johnson and Sawyer’s history traces back to high school, when they covered Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” at their school’s talent show. Johnson was a junior.
“It was in that moment that I realized that music was what I wanted to do for a living full time,” Johnson says.
While being a professional musician has been Johnson’s reality since “American Idol,” he’s finally doing it on his own terms by releasing a record like “Born From Southern Ground.”
“It’s the record that I’ve always wanted to make,” Johnson says.