Michael Johnson Photo

40 years strong

Michael Johnson still popular at Gustavus every year

By Amanda Dyslin, Free Press Staff Writer
December 6, 2006

ST. PETER, MN -- Michael Johnson has released 20-some albums, he's been playing live guitar-driven music for 40 years, and he has returned to Gustavus Adolphus College every year since 1968 to perform before nearly sold-out audiences.

That's right, Gustavus — a college campus full of late teens and 20-somethings who might not typically be thought of as fans of a 62-year old folk singer, but rather some experimental indie flavor of the year.

Not these liberal arts kids. It's not just the professors and St. Peter area folkies who fill up Bjorling Recital Hall — and will again Friday night when Johnson returns for another concert — to watch his annual show. Students come out in high numbers to take in Johnson's melancholy music, or at least that's how he describes it.

Most of the time Johnson of Nashville refuses to describe his music at all, rather calling himself a "juggler" of various musical styles with his guitar and distinctive harmonious voice as the common threads. Music professor Doug Nimmo doesn't like using the term "folk" to describe Johnson's playing, either, he said. It just doesn't encapsulate the essence of his music.

"Maybe sophisticated folk music," said Nimmo, who's been teaching at Gustavus since 1987, 20 years after Johnson started performing there. "He's terrific. People who come to his concerts leave feeling their lives are a little bit better, or maybe a lot better."

It's hard to pinpoint why that is, Nimmo said. It's everything about a Johnson performance, really, from his passionate stage presence to his fancy guitar playing.

It's also in the variety. Stylistically, Johnson plays music ranging from acoustic folk to pop to soft rock and even some country.

Also, his lyrics are not only relatable, they probe into the human condition and make his listeners feel things.

From "Distant Fire": Yesterdays are in my heart tonight. And I can't fight that old desire. Loneliness remembers love that lives in embers, flickering from a distant fire.

"His lyrics really challenge people to think," Nimmo said. "They're very, very insightful and so thoughtful and so probing."

Al Behrends, director of fine arts, said Johnson truly enjoys coming back year after year, and the students and faculty look forward to it, as well. Something about his music has resonated with the Gustavus community for decades.

"I think there's something very comforting about a guitar and a solo voice and a cup of coffee," Nimmo said. "Folk music allows people to feel like themselves."

Behrends — who first saw Johnson perform in Gustavus' old field house in 1974 when Behrends was a student — said students have stayed interested in the concerts each year out of curiosity. Many of them are aware that Johnson's shows are popular on campus, but they may not be familiar with his music. So they might go to the shows to find out what the fuss is all about.

"Part of it is the mystique," Behrends said. "And we have kids — students — who come in who really love guitar played well, too."

Johnson, who lived for 19 years in Minneapolis before moving to Nashville, was once a member of the folk group the Chad Mitchell Trio. His first solo album, "There Is a Breeze," was released in 1973.

In 1978 he had his first No. 1 hit on the adult contemporary charts with "Bluer Than Blue." After signing with RCA in 1985 and going country, Johnson earned five Top 10 country hits between 1986 and 1989, including "Give Me Wings" and "The Moon is Still Over Her Shoulder."

For more information, visit www.mjblue.com.

Photo at Gustavus Fieldhouse 1979 (C. McArthur)