There is a gallery of intriguing situations and characters in these lyrics. Johnson's wise and melodic treatment illuminates all of them.
May 28, 1988
By Thomas Goldsmith
His songs have 'Wings' - say country fans
Michael Johnson got pulled into country music because of its folky roots and well-crafted songs--then hit the top of the charts by spotlighting those same elements.
Starting out in the late 1960s as a folk balladeer and entertainer, Johnson became a pop success in 1978-79 with Nashville-recorded tunes such as "Bluer Than Blue" and "This Night Won't Last Forever". Upon his 1985 return to Music City, his acoustic guitar style and liking for strong, thoughtful lyrics made him fit right in with successful "new country" acts such as the Judds, the O'Kanes and Lyle Lovett.
"I'm not sure, but I think that part of my appeal to country audiences has to do with the way that country music appeals to me," Johnson said during a recent telephone interview. "I really am a song man and coming out of folk music before I was in pop music and really paying real special attention to lyrics made it really important for me to select the right songs."
His first country album, Wings, yielded the hits singles, "Give Me Wings", "The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder", "Gotta Learn to Love Without You" and "Ponies". Strong chart performance by those tunes won him recognition as Billboard magazine's top country singles artist of 1987. "To have two Number Ones off my first album felt great," Johnson said. "It's interesting to come at the right time and be considered as part of a trend.
For a new LP, That's That, Johnson and producer Brent Maher went through mountains of material in an effort to maintain the high songwriting quality displayed on Wings. We went through tons of stuff and wound up with some songs that Brent and I had to do a lot of lobbying about with each other," the singer said. "We would live with ideas much longer than we wanted to; we were really trying to come up with the best stuff."
A word of caution -- the nine-song LP version of "That's That" contains only eight new cuts, with "The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder" from Wings popping up again. "That was not my idea; that was RCA's decision," Johnson said. "It was a marketing decision." The CD version of That's That contains two additional tunes, "It's Too Soon To Tell" and "Samson and Delilah".
In its LP configuration, the new record contains contributions from such noted writers as Janis Ian, Hugh Prestwood, Don Schlitz, Rhonda Kye Fleming, Craig Bickhardt and Randy Van Warmer. The songs explore the timeless country topics of love, travel and loss -- without hitting listeners in the face. "People have been underestimating country audiences," Johnson said. "Thinking is allowed -- that's my new slogan. Think that'd be a good bumper sticker?"
Musically, That's That continues in the tradition of Wings, in that the songs receive sparse, imaginative backings that let the lyrics come through clearly. Sessionman Don Potter's and Johnson's acoustic guitars are at the heart of the informally derived arrangements. "The only thing deliberate about it was an attempt to base it around my guitar parts," Johnson said.
"It's meticulous and it's easy; we have a lot of fun because Don and I like to play so much. He and I worked my guitar parts up into duets and then we would base arrangements around that. We demo everything with just the two guitars and Brent playing his knees or whatever. Then we play that version for the guys on the track dates and they seem to know what their parts are."
Folky, mellow arrangements highlight the introspective qualities of songs such as "Some People's Lives" and the current single "I Will Whisper Your Name". "Diamond Dreams" and "That's That" venture into more pop-oriented territory, while a harder edge emerges in "Crying Shame" and "Roller Coaster Run".
A composition by New Yorker Prestwood, "Roller Coaster Run" tells a truck driver's tale -- "One day up/one day back/one day with my wife." "The thing that was most striking about the lyric to that song is that it doesn't glorify the trucker, it just tells it like it is," Johnson said.
These days, the singer is seeing a lot of the highway himself. He's moved to Nashville along with his wife Sally, and sons Stan, 8, and Leo, 5, but finds himself more often on the road than when the family lived near Minneapolis. "As soon as we finished unpacking I was gone -- the career kind of took an upswing," he said. "I have been gone more than in Minnesota. I just finished a tour with Don Williams up in Canada. Actually we started in Canada, worked our way west and wound up in L.A. It was really enjoyable -- we played in some gorgeous halls for some really attentive audiences."
Not too long ago, Johnson formed his first band since the "Bluer Than Blue" period and hit the road as the opening act for Alabama. He found it quite a contrast from his years of working as a solo entertainer with a classical guitar. "It was an interesting baptism for me," he said. "I didn't quite know what to do with an audience that size, but I did manage to have a good time with them. I try to talk to the audience and be glib or be something, but you can't do that with 60,000 people or 200,000 for whatever it is. I'm putting together a show and trying to figure what it takes to do this kind of performing."
Country audiences, who are vastly loyal once they've recognized an artist they like, are just beginning to place Michael Johnson in their pantheon of stars, he said.
"I have a sound vocally to where they may not know my name, but they say, 'That's that guy,'" he said and laughed. "It just takes being there."