Nick Juno never imagined he’d collaborate with Bob Dylan.
The metro Detroit folk singer-songwriter took an unfinished, unreleased and unrecorded Dylan song, “Dope Fiend Robber,” from 1961 and added lyrics and original music to it. Juno learned about the song through Untold Dylan, an online curator of more than 600 Dylan songs.
“I tried to make it in the feel of the 1960s Bob Dylan kind of folky way as well as Woody Guthrie. I didn’t want to sing it like Dylan; I wanted sing it in my own way,” he said.
A tragic sonic tale, “Dope Fiend Robber” highlights a World War II vet who becomes addicted to morphine after recovering from a combat-related injury. His growing addiction escalates into robbery and murder as well as his eventual execution.
As a gifted storyteller, Juno eloquently honors Dylan on “Dope Fiend Robber” as down-home swift acoustic strums seamlessly glide alongside his nimble vocals, “They found me guilty at the trial/The Judge condemned me to die/Been on that morphine quite a while/But once I was somebody’s child.”
“It doesn’t really mean anything in the greater scheme, but it’s pretty amazing to see my name next to Bob Dylan,” said Juno, who grew up in Flushing.
Juno developed a deep appreciation for Dylan and folk music while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps in San Diego and Honolulu. By the early ‘80s, he was a high school graduate who casually learned guitar from his friends on base.
“The guys would show each other three cowboy chord songs, and the first guitar I had was this little old one. I had to take it to a buddy of mine to tune it every week or so because I didn’t know how to tune it. He said, ‘If you’re going to learn how to play this thing, at some point, you’re going to have to learn how to tune it,’” Juno said.
“I handled that, but that’s when I started playing, and my big love back then was Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Jim Glover, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. It was always a story first and then the music. I’m not terribly fancy; I’m a strummer, finger-picker folkie, but I know my role, and I want to tell a story, and I put the two together.”
The Ballad of Nick Juno
Juno started putting both together after returning home from the Marine Corps in 1985. He frequented open mic nights at Local 432, a bustling all-ages punk rock club in Flint, and played folk-driven acoustic sets in between emerging punk bands. Juno also performed live on the air at WFBE-FM, a Flint public radio station, during the “Take No Prisoners” and “Kaleidoscope” shows.
“These were full-blown punk, mosh pit shows, and I was there with an acoustic guitar. There was a contrast between the heavy, loud and crazy music they did, and I’d be there singing old Dylan songs or a protest song. The crowd would just stop, stand there and get into it. I played that for years and years, and a lot of my fast strumming stuff came right out of the punk club,” Juno said.
Juno continued to write songs about military life and experiences while working as a truck driver transporting goods across the U.S. and Canada. After having a family, he took an extended hiatus from music, but returned seven years ago after reconnecting with an old friend from his Flint music days.
That old friend ended up being Marc Jacob Hudson, bassist for Laura Jane Grace and the Devouring Mothers and music producer at Rancho Recordo in Fenton. Juno recorded seven tracks for his sparse, minimalist folk debut EP, Troubled with the Earth, with Hudson over two days in 2018.
“I just wanted a live take and didn’t want to put too much into it. That’s my style of when I play. Those seven songs were just one-takes, and he mixed them up and put them out like that,” Juno said.
Troubled with the Earth provides introspective, acoustic-rich sonic tales about political upheavals, environmental desecration, military suicide, soul-searching road trips, corporate greed and societal corruption. It’s a thought-provoking microcosm of Greenwich Village woven throughout seven Springsteen-esque social justice tracks.
The provocative, environmental title track includes rapid acoustic strums churning in repetitive succession as Juno facetiously sings, “It’s been a busy day, what are you trying to sell/Oh Mother Nature’s in trouble, she could really use my help/If I make a small donation, receive a free decal/It’s funny a little charity can make you feel so fine.”
“I was at a stoplight after a show one night at 2 a.m., and just before the light changes, the car in front of me that’s covered in all the right environmental stickers rolls down the window and a Taco Bell bag comes out the window and hits the ground. I see all the yellow taco wrappers blowing on the street. It’s sort of a tongue-in-cheek poke at that – getting your ticket punched, but not being on board for the big win,” Juno said.
Northern California and 2330 Blues
Another haunting track, “2330 Blues,” beautifully pays tribute to a Marine who died by suicide at Pearl Harbor. Delicate, sorrowful acoustic strums surround Juno as he sings, “So he plugged away for a year or so/Struggling day by day/Although he had not gone crazy yet/He knew he was on his way.”
“There was a podium at each post, and you stood there in your dressed blue uniform with a pistol on your hip. There’s a logbook there, and you made log entries every 15 minutes so that if anything happens to you or the post, then there’s a timeline. You do it for four hours, and then it’s the next guy. One night, a young Marine at 11:30 p.m. pulls a service pistol and takes his own life, no explanations,” Juno said.
The album’s folky wanderlust closer, “Northern California Walking I-5 Blues,” celebrates the easygoing life of a young sunshine state traveler navigating the open road. Juno provides vibrant acoustic guitar and quick bluesy vocals as he celebrates the young road warrior, “I got those northern California walking I-5 blues/Northern California walking I-5 blues/If I make up it to Oregon, I’m gonna need more than just another pair of shoes.”
“I was up in northern California, and I had to stop at a general store in a big gravel parking lot. There was a guy in his early 20s with a dog, and I just walked up to him and said, ‘Can I buy you some provisions and chip in for your journey?’ And he said, ‘If you don’t mind, that would be great,’” Juno said.
“We went inside the general store, and he picked out the most basic things – crackers, almonds and coffee grounds – and I said, ‘Anything else?’ and he said, ‘If you don’t mind, could we buy some dog food?’ Later, I drove off, and I’ve never seen him since, so I wrote this song one day about traveling.”
Since releasing Troubled with the Earth, Juno has penned several new sonic stories, including saving people from opioid and heroin overdoses on “Narc Angel,” celebrating Chile political protests on “Chile Despertó,” paying homage to Lucinda Williams on “Sugarcane and Kerosene” and personifying a reaper drone on “The Ballad of the Lonesome Drone.”
“That was written about when the Americans took out the Iranian general in Iraq. I’m a red-white-and-blue Marine, and I’m for the team and all that, but it just seems the whole idea about a guy on one side of the earth controlling this drone that’s on the other side of the world seems so disconnected. At some point in the future with artificial intelligence, will a drone become a conscientious observer and not want to be a drone anymore?” said Juno about “The Ballad of the Lonesome Drone.”
In the meantime, Juno’s collaborating with Jeff Robinson, a longtime recording engineer and owner of Third Monk Brewing Company in South Lyon, on his next full-length project.
“I said, ‘I want to record some songs,’ and he said, ‘You can’t just go in and record, you gotta sharpen up your skills, play to a click track and be ready.’ I’m working with him and actually putting in the work to get ready to do that,” he said.