Michael Johnson Photo

The History of a Performer

By Kandy Crosby
Kountry Licks
December 1997

I was so excited when I found out about the brand new Michael Johnson album -- Then and Now. I was even more excited when I put in an interview request, and the interview actually came in. I have been a fan of his ever since I first heard his songs on the radio. You more than likely remember such classics as "Bluer Than Blue," "The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder," "That's That," and "Give Me Wings." Good news! Those and more are on Then and Now!

Talking with Michael was like talking with an old friend. I felt totally comfortable -- not at all like a journalist imposing on his plans. I usually can relate with musicians pretty well; but once in a while, I talk with an entertainer who I really connect with -- artists like Marty Stuart, Greg Martin of the Kentucky Headhunters, Billy Dean, Ty England, and Michael Johnson. I often hear reporters speak of how they had to loosen up a certain person. In all honesty, we have to be loosened up sometimes, too. But I was immediately comfortable with Michael Johnson. I think that ease shows through in the following interview.

Kountry Licks: Your new album is, of course, a greatest hits package -- Then and Now. How do you feel about the outcome?

Michael Johnson: Oh, I'm happy. I don't think I could be happier. I've got some great musicians. It's been fun to do, actually, they're just sort of my live arrangements -- guitar, vocal, solo arrangements of those songs. It builds from there. It winds up not being a big production; it's a small ensemble. Have you heard any of it?

KL: Yes, I have. I really enjoyed it.

MJ: Oh, good. Thank you.

KL: You included some of your first hits and some of your latest country hits on the project. How did you go about the song selection?

MJ: Well, that was fairly easy, because I just recorded the hits that I have been fortunate enough to have -- not really paying much attention to anything else. Then -- since I'm a balladeer at heart -- I found myself short of up-tunes. That's when I just started looking at some earlier things that I had cut, and wound up doing some of that too. Some of the up-songs that weren't singles. The duet with Alison [Krauss] -- that was her idea.

KL: Oh, really? How did that come about?

MJ: Well, we were traveling and performing together. She's just a lover of the music of the '70s and '80s, I think. She just said, "I've always wanted to do that song. I think you ought to learn it, and then we ought to work it out." And I sort of shuffled my feet for a while. I wasn't sure. And as soon as I got into it, I knew that it was a great idea.

KL: As you mentioned, the arrangements of the songs on this album are different than the original versions. What made you approach it this way?

MJ: Because there was no reason to do them the same again. They've already been done that way once. So I wanted to scale them down to hopefully have the lyric and melody be more important than the rockets going off and the drum. I think we did. I hope we did. You know, "This Night Won't Last Forever" is a much sadder song when you can sit back and listen to the lyric, instead of just bopping along to the groove. [Laughs]

KL: You co-produced your new album. How important do you feel it is for an artist to have that creative control?

MJ: Well, in my case it's very important. It really always has been. I've not been a credited producer, but I've always tried to do more towards that end. I don't know, some artists really can't stand it, and don't want to have any part of that. Others maybe go the other way too far. But, yeah, I like to get in there myself. I like to get my hands on it. In the end, people often say, "Don't forget, man, this is your record. This is your record." And I'm busy saying, "I know. I know it's my record." But if you let stuff happen that you're not sold on, then you've kind of abandoned yourself. So I think that may be how I started producing was just sort of defensively -- like "No, I want it to sound more like this."

KL: Earlier you mentioned some of the musicians on your album. Jerry Douglas performs on Then and Now. How did this come about?

MJ: Oh, Jerry's an old friend. I've known him a long time. He's played on several of my albums in the past. He's more than a virtuoso, more than a dobro player. It's like there are all the dobro players in the world, and there are gradations from Z all the way up to A; and then there's Jerry Douglas. He's just over there all by himself. It sounds like a different instrument when he plays.

KL: Now, speaking of musicians, you are a very accomplished guitarist.

MJ: Well, thank you.

KL: I heard an interesting story about how you began playing the guitar. What was that about?

MJ: I'm glad you found it interesting. [Laughs] I was bored. I had pneumonia. My brother had been hit by a car. We were both in hospital beds in the living room of our house in Denver. When doctors made house calls, this guy would come over, and everyday I was in an oxygen tent, and he'd come over after work everyday on his way home and administer my brother and myself. But model airplanes were a drag. My dad went out and bought a guitar, put a little pick-up in it, and plugged it into the radio -- which was something that you couldn't do, that nobody had done. There was not technology for that. I was on the radio. So that was just unbeatable. I was trying to play along with songs. There's a lot to learn, and I had this great setup all of a sudden. It was a long time -- three months that we were both sick, my brother and I. We didn't quit. I guess I had my hand just enough to where it wasn't a hobby anymore.

KL: What first interested you in music?

MJ: Oh, I just always loved the way it sounded -- singing and my dad played guitar and sang. My mom would play the piano, and we'd all stand around and sing. It probably came from that, and being a good, little Catholic in the choir. That was very important. I always listened to Gene Vincent and Chuck Berry and stuff like that. Right afterward, started listening to Charlie Byrd -- but still acoustic guitar playing stuff. And it all just seemed like soup to me. It was like the same stuff. It didn't matter. At that time, rock music -- as much as it wanted to have an identity -- it was just a radio format, like all other art forms, really those days. I didn't care, I just slipped from style to style. I don't know. I just always like music. I never thought that I would be worthy of calling myself a musician.

It's funny, because, it's still kind of a second class term in the world. You could say that you're a painter or dancer or an actor and maybe get a little bit more credibility from somebody. You say, "Oh, yeah, I'm a musician." And they go, "Oh, how nice. Listen, the kitchen entrance is down the side of the building." [Laughs]

KL: [Laughs] Out of singing, and songwriting, and being a musician, which do you prefer?

MJ: Performing.

KL: Performing. That's good.

MJ: Yeah. I would rather sing and play, and I do like arranging. That's a fun process. Writing is not a musical thing at all. I find it really hard.

KL: One of your biggest country hits was, of course, the song "Give Me Wings." Didn't you originally want to record this as a duet?

MJ: Right. That was supposed to be a duet with Sylvia. I was trying to reciprocate a great favor she did for me. She found a duet called "I Love You By Heart" that we did together. I just thought, "Boy, thank you." (I talked to her last night.) I thought if I could find a song, there's nothing I'd rather do than help Syl.

So we were looking; and as we were in a publisher's dub room -- just a very unmusical place covered with machines and acoustic tiles and corkboard. Looked like a bad radio station. I heard the song, and everybody's trying it on and, you know, it's complicated because the verses are in third person. Finally everybody threw up their hands. The producer said, "No, no, no. This will never work as a duet." And they walked out of the room. I'm saying, "But, but, but this song is just so wonderful." They said, "Well, good. We're glad you liked it." So I learned it, and started performing it; and Brent Maher came to the Bluebird, in fact, to hear me play one night, and I played that song. And he said, "Well, we have to record it." [Laughs] So that's sort of the way it happened.

KL: Recently, your song of "This Night Won't Last Forever" was redone by Sawyer Brown. Have you heard their version?

MJ: I have.

KL: What did you think of it?

MJ: Oh, I thought it was nice. I thought it was very real. I liked it because there was an edge of liveness to it. It wasn't really trying to be all polished and shiny the way almost everything else is. I thought that was a good idea. I still -- what can I say, I like mine. [Laughs] I guess I'd have to say I prefer mine -- with all humility. [Laughs]

KL: When you first began your professional recording career, you had a reason to become discouraged. You landed a record deal with Epic, but your first record only sold twenty-three copies. Did you ever feel like giving up?

MJ: Oh, I have, but not because of that. Back then, I was happy to have the blues about it. 'Cause I was in the business, I got to commiserate with all my other starving friends. So, no, that never bothered me. I still have it framed. I'm looking at it. Eleven-cent royalty check. But yeah, sure, there are times when you think, "Why don't I become an adult now and get off the road and go into rug shampooing?" No, not rug shampooing. But no, I love it. I love it too much. So I still do it -- still a kid. Absolutely, there are times when I get discouraged. I write for a magazine called Performing Songwriter. Have you ever heard of them?

KL: I have heard of it, but I've never seen it.

MJ: If you get a chance, you ought to grab it. They really do talk about the ins and outs. In fact, I did an article on quitting -- about how people throw up their hands now and say, "I quit," Then five minutes later they say, "No, I don't."

KL: From the beginning of your career until now, what do you feel has been your greatest accomplishment.

MJ: Wow. Having two wonderful boys. I don't know. I still think singing in tune is important. Not that I do all the time. [Laughs]

KL: Right. Well, you always sound good to me.

MJ: Thanks.

KL: What do you think has been your most valued lesson?

MJ: I got advice from the television one night. The guy said, "Get good." I like that, because everybody's got so much advice. The way he said it was, "If you're any kind of an artist, you know how to hide your inadequacies. So if you can hide them, that means you know what they are. If you know what they are, then you can fix them. So get good." I thought, "Man, that's pretty good advice." [Laughs] Other than that, the kind of lessons that people learn are the mistakes that you make when you say to yourself, "I will never do that again." There's lots of those.

KL: What are some of your favorite Christmas traditions?

MJ: I don't know. I like it when people are friendly. I like it when people are civil at four-way stops, because it's Christmas Eve. I wind up doing non-traditional things over Christmas, because I do a Christmas show every year up in Minneapolis. I wind up on Christmas Eve on an airplane a lot. I talk to rental car people. I sit next to strangers on airplanes. On Christmas Eve, the things that you say to strangers -- that camaraderie of travelers. People aren't just moping. There's a niceness about dealing with people who got to work on Christmas. I enjoy that. I'm afraid that has become my Christmas.

KL: What do you remember the most about your childhood Christmases?

MJ: Well, I do remember a bike. I got this wonderful purple Mercury bike. I dearly loved it. I remember our dog. I remember the train around the bottom of the tree. So I think they have to do with being a short person.

KL: [Laughs] What do you want for Christmas this year?

MJ: Wow. What do I want? I don't know. I'll think about it. Ask me another question.

KL: What has been your favorite Christmas song of all times and why?

MJ: There's a song called "Upon a Christmas Eve." It's by Hugh Prestwood, and it's my favorite Christmas song. It's just a song of verses -- not really any big step out and grab you kind of chorus. It's the story of a bag lady who could be seen as an angel if you think about it. It's a gorgeous song. I'd like to get it to you. It's a really cool song.

KL INQUISITIVE INQUIRY: If you were Santa Claus, whose chimney would you want to go down?

MJ: Oh, wow. I'd like to scare my children. That'd be fun. They're older now. Yeah, my own. I'd come down my own chimney, and surprise everybody. [Laughs] As far as what I want for Christmas, I still don't know. I'm thinking.

Michael Johnson: Then and Now

I remember learning in a high school Bible class that the purpose of music is to soothe one's spirit. Michael Johnson must have realized this when he was recording Then and Now. Then and Now is a beautiful showcase of some of his classic material and some new -- such as a remake version of the pop hit, "Whenever I Call You Friend." This time around, the composition is performed as a duet featuring the angelic voices of Michael and Alison Krauss.

Even the previously-recorded Michael Johnson songs are more airy and acoustic than the originals --adding to that soothing quality -- I'm sure a direct result of the creative freedom offered by Intersound Records. Favorites such as "Bluer Than Blue," "The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder," and "That's That" will continue to timelessly endure.

You have more than likely heard Sawyer Brown's version of "This Night Won't Last Forever" all over country radio. Well, now it's time to hear the original. You'd be surprised how different the interpretations are. There's a certain softness about Michael's. When I hear it, I picture him playing complicated chordal arrangements on his classical guitar, eyes closed, and the melody flowing.

I guess my favorite cuts on the project are "Give Me Wings" and "Crying Shame." I've always loved the meaning behind the former with lyrics, "Give me wings. Don't be afraid if I fly. A bird in a cage will forget how to sing. If you really love me, give me wings." Wow! Who can't relate to this?

The latter, to be totally honest, I hadn't thought about in a long time. But now that I've heard it again, I can't and won't forget it. This is probably the happiest sounding one. Ironically, the lyrics repeat, "When love takes the blame, it's a crying shame," -- the irony, in my opinion, the mark of a great and well-written song.

Michael Johnson has always been a master at interpreting ballads. Maybe that's why ballads make up the majority of the percentage of the tracks. I'm not complaining. Even though I'm not a huge ballad fan, I relish these ones. Don't ask me why. I'm just a big Michael Johnson fan.

In fact, there's only one thing wrong with Then and Now. It doesn't include one of the most gorgeous songs of all times -- "I Will Whisper Your Name." Michael, Michael, Michael. Well, maybe next time.