Michael Johnson Photo

'Bluer Than Blue' Michael Johnson to headline Jefferson County Fair July 23

By Lynn Bering
July 20, 1999

BROOKVILLE, PA -- His name is so common he's been mistaken for a famous track star and a reggae gospel singer, but his bluesy smooth voice and fingerpicking guitar style are as unique as his name is common and he's bringing his solo act to the Jefferson County Fair July 23.

Michael Johnson is best known for his contemporary songs "Bluer Than Blue," "Almost Like Being In Love," "This Night Won't Last Forever," and "I'll Always Love You" as well as his country hits "Give Me Wings," "The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder" and "That's That."

However, Johnson is a musician who transcends classification.

"I'm a juggler," he observed, describing his musical style. "I am a series of unrelated events. I like different types of music and like to play a variety of musical styles."

A four-decade career

Johnson began his career in the 1960s and has molded a singer/songwriter sound in which his guitar is as much a part of his act as his voice. Without his guitar in hand during a performance he said he often forgets some of the lyrics to his own songs.

Before his first major hit song "Bluer Than Blue" was released in 1978, Johnson studied classical guitar in Barcelona, lived in a garage in Bel Air with Steve Martin ("There were balloon animals all over the place!"), was a member of the Chad Mitchell Trio with John Denver, and toured as an actor with the off-Broadway play "Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris." He lived for 19 years in Minneapolis before moving to Nashville in 1985, the place he calls home today.

Johnson's laid back, comfortable style is palpable both in person and on his website - www.mjblue.com - where he offers visitors information about his tours, career, and discography, lyrics and tablature, and a guestbook to post messages and questions to the singer.

His fans aren't fly-by-night and messages to his guestbook are posted from all over the world. Often they note their favorite songs are from Johnson's lesser-known albums or B-sides to the hits.

Also on his website are copies of columns he has written for Performing Songwriter magazine. They are personal and often flow like a subconscious thought process giving the reader insight to Johnson's life, songwriting, and emotions. He enjoys writing non-fiction and is considering compiling his essays into a book.

"That's one of the irons I have in the fire," said Johnson.

Johnson's latest album, "The Very Best of Michael Johnson: Bluer Than Blue (1978-1995)" was released in March and is a collection of his greatest hits. In 1997 he released "Then and Now" which is also a compilation CD, however, the selections are new and simplex versions of songs from several of his past albums. He called "Then and Now" a "picture" of his discography.

"I have a common name and one of the reasons I put out 'Then and Now' is to show one person did all those hits," Johnson told the CLARION NEWS.

Johnson's name is often forgotten, mistaken or transposed, but he has a good sense of humor about it. On his refrigerator he keeps a letter from a boy who wrote to him thinking he was Michael Johnson the track star. He also keeps a flyer of reggae/gospel singer Michael E. Johnson hanging on the fridge, too.

In August Johnson will release a CD version of his first three albums, "There is a Breeze," "For All You Mad Musicians," and "Ain't Dis Da Life." The double CD set will be available at his concerts and through his website. The re-release of his earliest efforts is a victory for Johnson who knows all too well how the music business is often unregulated internationally or concerned more with profit than quality.

In his next project Johnson hopes to grow musically by reaching back to the 1940s and the era of ballads. The working title for his new release is "You Must Remember This."

"I've been wanting to do a 40s album for awhile," said Johnson. "Not the jump or jive kind of swing that's been revived by groups like the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, but the mid-tempo beautiful ballads of that era."

Imitation as a compliment

They say imitation is the greatest compliment and Johnson has had his share of artists "complimenting" his work. Barry Manilow recently released his own version of "Bluer Than Blue," and a few years ago the country band Sawyer Brown enjoyed success with the single and video "This Night Won't Last Forever."

Johnson said watching the video and hearing the new versions of his songs was a milestone and "kind of cool in a way," but said he prefers his own versions.

"(In the new versions) I can hear my phrasing and where the artists took their own liberties," said Johnson. "Some people think it's a rip off, but I see it as a compliment."

One person who will re-record one of his songs is bluegrass/pop singer Alison Krauss who worked with and recorded "Whenever I Call You Friend" with Johnson on "Then and Now." She will cover the song "Empty Hearts" which he co-wrote with former Doobie Brothers singer Michael McDonald. Her album is set to be released in August.

Although Johnson's taste in music has remained relatively unchanged over the years, he doesn't close his ears to new artists and trends, mostly, he said, because of his two teenage sons, one of whom is in a neo-punk, shred-type of band called "The Snot Rockets."

"I'm trying to grow musically, not to change my taste, but to connect with my kids," he said.

As far as who entertains the entertainer, Johnson listens to a number of eclectic radio shows in Nashville including "Players and Poets" on Nashville Public Radio, and likes to hit some of the songwriter's clubs in Nashville in which writer's showcase their latest endeavors.

Although many of Johnson's concert tours often include the Nashville area and the five-state region of Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Iowa, Johnson recently returned from a tour in Manila and last year concluded several concert dates in Alaska and British Columbia. Following his performance in Jefferson County, Johnson is going on tour with Wynonna opening for her during concerts in Illinois, Ohio and Minnesota.

Although he usually doesn't choose his venues, he regularly says yes to a performance.

"Those types of decisions are for the bigger fish to make," he laughed. "I very rarely question where they want me to go. I just love to perform."

When Johnson takes the stage Friday at the Jefferson County Fair it will be the man and his guitar, performing in tandem, the old and the new, the familiar and the not so familiar.

"I'm bold enough to say I play a little more guitar than most people realize," said Johnson. "I try and make it a real duet. I'll be doing, of course, the songs I've been lucky enough to have had played on the radio like 'Bluer Than Blue' and some of the country hits, as well as some new stuff."

He also likes the banter between himself and the audience.

"It's a challenge," he said. "Audiences are diverse. They all have different tastes and have a collective sense of humor. I try and tap into it."

The Jefferson County Fairgrounds are located at exit 14 of Interstate 80. Tickets for the fair are $5 which includes admission to the Michael Johnson concert.

Reprinted with permission of Clarion News