Michael Johnson Photo

Singer-songwriter Michael Johnson to perform with MIS Orchestra

By Steve Wildsmith
Weekend Editor
The Daily Times
Feburary 10, 2011

Being a father of three probably prepared him somewhat, but singer-songwriter Michael Johnson's recent rehearsal with the Maryville Intermediate School Orchestra would have tried the patience, and perhaps the sanity, of most men and women.

On stage — Johnson; orchestra Director Bill Robinson; and 70 sixth-grade string players. Seventy 11- and 12-year-olds in that awkward stage between childhood and adolescence, when hormones are ramping up and attention spans are barely there.

It was, he told The Daily Times this week, wonderful.

"I looked at that group and saw everything from total inspiration to abject lethargy, just everything across the whole gamut, and it was fabulous," he said. "It was just so much fun. Nothing in my life has led up to that moment."

That's saying a lot, given Johnson's background as a world-traveling folk musician. Born in Colorado, he picked up the guitar when he was 13, winning an international talent contest in the mid-1960s that led to Epic Records releasing his single, "Hills." He began a tour of the college and coffeehouse circuit, finding receptive audiences hungry for music that touched on deeper subjects. A young man himself, he came of age during that turbulent decade, when folk music was as powerful a medium as anything else when it came to galvanizing, inspiring and moving the masses.

"The best advice I ever got, and probably the only advice I ever took, was when I talked with (blues legend) Josh White Sr. and he said, 'Get good,'" Johnson said. "And he also said, 'Don't quit.' As far as getting good, he meant that you knew what you needed to learn, so you had to go and learn it. By that time, I was 20, and I sort of did know a bit about what I needed to learn. And the don't quit thing — well, that's the one thing you can't do, because if you quit, you lose all of your options. And if you don't quit, it will get good."

In 1966, he moved to Spain, studying at the Liceu Conservatory; after moving back to the United States, he was a member of several bands, including a trio that included folk legend John Denver. After the group splintered, he dabbled in an off-Broadway production before releasing his first album, "This Is a Breeze," in 1973 on Atco Records. Several more albums followed before he broke through nationally with "Bluer Than Blue," recorded as a demo and released on "The Michael Johnson Album" in 1978. It peaked at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart that summer, reaching No. 1 on the Adult Contemporary chart.

"When I first heard it, I was stunned," Johnson said. "I had been invited to Nashville to play for the first time on a guy's record who was recording my song, and while I was there I met the band I came to love and the producer I was going to work with. After the session, I asked him (Randy Goodrum) if he would consider doing a song on spec with me, so I played him a song my next-door neighbor had written. He said yes, and then he played his song for me — 'Bluer Than Blue.'

"I don't think I had an ear for what a hit was, or even a commercial song. But I spent my life savings — $18,000 — and we recorded those three songs. And the fifth record company my manager shopped it to, EMI America, jumped on it. They were so sold on it, they were pressing the records while we were negotiating the contract."

The follow-up to "Bluer Than Blue," "Almost Like Being in Love," charted on the AC, R&B and Pop charts; his next album, "Dialogue," gave him his third big hit, "This Night Won't Last Forever." Although he has yet to reach similar heights in the years since (although he did have a string of Top 10 country hits from 1986 to 1989, including "Give Me Wings" and "The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder"), he turned a corner in 1981, he said, and started making music was truer to himself as an artist.

"That was the beginning of that awareness about music, that being true to your art is being true to yourself," he said. "It's about being true to your gift, because I've found through years of wasted time that if you're not true to it, it'll turn on you and make you bitter. And I don't want that."

Nurturing his own gift has spurred him to help others do the same, and it's a big reason he's a part of this weekend's Blount County performance. (That, and he's honored to work with Robinson, he added — "He's such an amazing educator and a gift to the community there," Johnson said.) Even today, he works hard to remain teachable, even though it isn't always easy.

"For me, the biggest moments were doing it the hard way — going in the studio and really blowing it, really screwing up, or playing a gig one night and laying a bunch of eggs and coming home and saying, 'I will never make that mistake again!'" he said. "The thing I tell my students these days is that it has to be easy, or you can't do it. Your job is to do the ordinary hard work to make something difficult easy for you.

"My son (Leo Johnson of local Gypsy jazz group Johnson Swingtet) has also been a big influence. He's big into Django Reinhardt and just exploding as an improvisor on the guitar, but for the longest I was saying, 'The song has to be about something! It has to have a melody!' And finally I said, 'Michael, just shut up.' He turned me onto some of his music, which are these quaint Gypsy melodies in minor keys with only a couple of interesting changes to them, and the rest is him flying around playing 'Flight of the Bumblebee' — but in a very creative way. I had to back off and say, 'You're right; improvisation is the key."

These days, he's excited about what the future has in store. He's scaled back his studio plans, pointing to three of his past albums that were small ensemble projects, and the three he has in the works, he said, will be even smaller. They may not contain a "Bluer Than Blue" sort of hit for him, but he's OK with that, too — because living in the past squanders the possibilities of the now.

"I think that it was an excellent foot in the door, but it was quite a while ago that it was a hit," he said. "It used to be, after I'd do the gig, a little co-ed would come up and say, 'Can I have your autograph?' Now, the little co-ed comes up and says, 'My mom' or 'My grandmom loves your music.'"