Living for the Country
By Michael Dickens
June 20, 1986
Singer Michael Johnson's career had been on hold when he decided to stick his neck out and take a plunge. Not satisfied to sit back in the city and live off his past musical credits, which include the late '70s hits "Bluer Than Blue" and "This Night Won't Last Forever, " Johnson decided to take a stroll into the country.
Now, Johnson, a recent winner of the Country/Bluegrass Best Male Vocalist award at the Minnesota Music Awards, is hoping his decision to jump in the river of country music with the release of Wings (RCA) is one that'll leave fans of this fair-haired songster from Minnetonka happy and diving in with him.
"Country is a good place for a singer to be," says Johnson in a recent telephone interview from Nashville, where he recorded Wings last winter. "Not that I grew up listening to Lefty Frizzell or any of that. But I've always like country music, songs like Hank Williams' 'I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry.'"
Hard-core country Johnson isn't, but he believes Wings has allowed him to broaden his musical horizons instead of becoming complacent as a pop singer/songwriter. Wise from a business standpoint, it may also prove to be an artistic strategy that'll bring Johnson new listeners -- and acclaim. Earlier this year, Johnson hit the country top 10 with "I Love You By Heart," a lively duet with country songstress Sylvia.
As for the Minnesota Music Award, "It's really a compliment and an honor to be recognized at home," says Johnson. "Especially since the main thrust of the Minnesota scene is the techno-pop, funk and R&B kind of stuff.
"Still, I've said it many times that I wish there were no labels for music. Let a record speak for itself instead of saying someone is too pop, too folksy, too black, or too vanilla."
Johnson's no stranger to success in a business that thrives on hit songs. His first brush came in 1978 when his "Bluer Than Blue," a bittersweet love tune about romantic breakups, climbed to number one on the adult contemporary charts and number 10 on the pop charts. Johnson didn't go into that project with the idea that it'd become a hit, and he didn't exactly enjoy the notoriety that accompanied the song's success. He says he felt pressure to duplicate the success of "Bluer Than Blue."
"I thought I was just lucky," Johnson remembers. "I was also afraid. I thought it was something I would have to live up to. I was scared with the things that came with success."
Johnson says he tried to ignore what was happening while maintaining a positive outlook. He simply preferred returning to the studio and continuing with coffeehouse and college gigs instead of having to make appearances on national television or playing arena shows. Still, he had other thoughts, too. "On the other hand, I thought I could just go out and do another "Bluer," he says. "When the material is right then you have a chance.
Before Johnson hit the charts with "Bluer," he spent a fun-but-hectic year in the early '70s as a member of the Chad Mitchell Trio, along with another young and aspiring folk singer named John Denver. The trio performed a couple hundred concerts before going their separate ways.
"I learned a lot from working with John," says Johnson. "The nuts and bolts of how to put on a show, how to travel, how to stay healthy. He's a pragmatic, self-made man who's the same on and off stage."
Johnson, who accompanies himself on classical guitar, considers himself both a songwriter and a song interpreter. Wings features not only his own material like "Gotta Learn to Love Without You," co-written with Kent Robbins, but it's also full of songs written by Music Row's top writers, including Mike Reid, Chick Rains, Jamie O'Hara, and Hugh Prestwood.
Johnson considers songwriting more of a creative thing than a chore but is quick to admit it's not like a nine-to-five job. "Ideas come at the damndest times," he says. "Those are the gifts. It's not the talent. The thing to remember about writing is to be true to your views. The ordinary hard work of trying to sit down and finish something is what makes you a songwriter."
Johnson knew deep down, however, that he couldn't pull off Wings by himself. "I think that one of the difficult things to do as a recording artist or an actor is to take directions, and yet, hold on to your own preferences, too," he says. "It's so much of an ego thing for some, but it's hard not to learn from your friends. They (the recording musicians on the album) do what they do well."
The album's title comes from the Don Schlitz-Rhonda Fleming ballad "Give Me Wings," a song that Johnson relates to freedom. "Even though the record has my voice," he muses, "it's in reality a matter of bouncing ideas off of each other, and you find out who you are when you make the record, and the input of friends who are your teachers becomes very important. They helped me to find my wings."
Johnson's love for all types of music made it easy for him to put together a country-oriented album. He accepts the idea that Wings might disappoint some of his fans who like him for his pop sound. "In making Wings, we knew we were in the ballpark of country music," says Johnson. "I knew it would be labeled in the country section of record stores. The object, though, is to get as much of me into the record."
Johnson's diversity, depth, and sophistication show on Wings. There are ballads like "Ponies," about the western plains, and "The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder," a love song about an older couple; then there's the gospel-influenced "Cool Me in the River of Love," and even the ragtime sound of "Hangin' On." Johnson also crosses over into bluegrass with "That's What Your Love Does to Me."
Producer Brent Maher, who guided many of Johnson's earlier efforts and more recently has worked with the Judds and Sylvia, juxtaposed Johnson's nylon-string guitar with Don Potter's steel-string guitar to form the core of the album's arrangements, most of which feature Nashville session musicians.
Still, Johnson is hesitant to label Wings his best album to date. "I stopped doing that with the first record I made because every project feels so different," he says. "It's like saying one romance is better or saying you love one of your children better than the other. There's such a difference in quality. It's the quality of the material. None of the experiences are comparable."
At 41, Johnson enjoys his work, but he realizes the difficulties that go with being a musician as well as a husband and a father. "Each one is a complete career," he admits. "It's difficult to even make an appointment for dinner with my wife. You have to prioritize your life, but you also want to make time to have fun. It's been hard because I negotiate with my time. I've learned that you can't always jump into work even though my compulsion is to work. Travel makes it worse."
Johnson shuttled between Minneapolis and Nashville more than two dozen times during the initial two months it took to record Wings. Now, he realizes if the album takes off there'll be more trips away from his family and more demands that accompany success. Some, however, he doesn't mind. Like last weekend's Freedom Fest at the Metrodome or next Tuesday's appearance with the Rochester Symphony Orchestra.
"As we get older we're fighting the battle to be happy and get better, get freer and find a spiritual path," he says. "I'm still trying to be true to myself. It's not a matter of falling for my image, but rather dealing with it, hiding with it, sparring with it. The temptation at the beginning was to fall for it. Now, I'm more true to myself than I've ever been."