Michael Johnson Photo
Michael Johnson relaxed backstage while emceeing a show at Fan Fair in Nashville, Tenn.

Nashville Move Affirms Turn to Country Music

By Jon Bream/Staff Writer
Minneapolis Star and Tribune
June 28, 1987

Is Michael Johnson, Minnesota folk and pop troubadour, ready for country music?

The answer is a hesitant yes.

A few months ago, Johnson's answer would have been something between noncommittal and equivocal. But after living in Minnetonka for the past 18 years and then scoring two No. 1 country songs this year, Johnson, 41, packed up his family and moved to the capital of country music.

"Some of my friends (in Minnesota) hate me," said Johnson. He agonized over the decision for weeks. Finally, in April, he realized he was spending too much time commuting to Tennessee. He didn't want to have to choose between his career and his family. He opted for both -- which meant Nashville -- and the decision surprised even himself.

"I didn't believe it was happening," he said, "until I read the headline in the paper: 'Michael Johnson is leaving Minnesota.'"

Life changed for Michael, Sally, Stan and Leo Johnson on June 8. After spending "a depressing night" at a Bloomington hotel, Johnson and his two young sons flew to Tennessee. The next day, his wife arrived by car at their new home. Then the singer immersed himself in the business of country music for four days.

Wednesday: 90 minutes of signing autographs at Fan Fair, a kind of state fair where the singers are the exhibits for 24,000 fair-goers; 2-1/2 hours of giving interviews to radio disc jockeys and music critics at Fan Fair; four hours of rehearsing his new band for the first time to prepare for two performances.

Thursday: hosting the RCA Records concert at Fan Fair, a prestigious task usually reserved for a well-known disc jockey or country singer. Friday: taping his second appearance on TV's "Hee Haw" with Charley Pride and Roy Clark. Saturday: performing a concert with his band for the first time -- for 65,000 people at "June Jam," a charity festival staged by the group Alabama in their tiny hometown of Fort Payne, Ala.

What did Johnson, a Colorado-bred folk singer, make of his baptism in country music?

"Maybe I'm not aware of what's going on," he reflected, "but it all seems surreal; sometimes real, sometimes surreal. It's probably just my baptism.

"It's a strange people (-oriented) business. It's a more human business (than pop music). People look you straight in the eye. Aloofness is not really allowed."

A maze of people stands in line in front of Johnson at the RCA Records booth at Fan Fair. The line is much longer in front of the nearby "Hee Haw" booth, and people are already congregating off to the side in anticipation of Alabama's appearance at the RCA booth later in the day.

"Nice to meet you," says a young woman with a sheepish smile. "I enjoy your music."

"Thank you," he says to the woman, who is with her mother. "What's your name?" He scribbles, "Lani, Nice to meet you! Michael Johnson," across a replica of the album cover of "Wings," his ninth album but his first in country music.

"Can I have a picture?" asks Lani, who acts embarrassed, like someone who has a crush. Johnson obliges by jumping on the table and putting his arm around Lani as her mother snaps the photograph.

Another woman in line tells Johnson that "Bluer Than Blue," his 1979 pop hit, is her favorite song. "I was a fan before you were considered country," she says.

Johnson on the autograph session: "It was easy. I knew what it was like last year. There wasn't really much action on my behalf; I was handing out Ronnie Milsap posters.

"Fan Fair last year was a shock. I felt like I was inside a loaf of bread inside an oven. It was so hot. It was my first awareness of the dedication of country fans."

Elaine Ganick shepherds Johnson into the Fan Fair media building. Meeting the press here will be a first for Johnson. Ganick is an old hand: She doubles as the Nashville correspondent for TV's Entertainment Tonight" and as an assistant to her husband, Woody Bowles, who is Johnson's manager.

Ganick has decided to forgo Johnson's scheduled press conference in favor of one-on-one interviews in a tiny makeshift room defined by portable curtains. Whether the interviewer is from a newspaper in Knoxville, Tenn., or a radio station in Dubois, Pa., Johnson looks his interrogator straight in the eye and answers the questions as if it's the first time he has heard them.

Many of the radio disc jockeys ask him about his days in pop music and what he has done since "Bluer Than Blue." They ask about his country hits, "Give Me Wings" and "The Moon is Still Over Her Shoulder" -- both of which reached No. 1 -- and his new single, "Ponies."

He has patience for the mistaken interviewers who think he wrote those songs. Yet the interviews actually seem secondary to the station-identification announcements most of the disc jockeys want to take back to their stations: "Hi. This is Michael Johnson. For New York Mets baseball and country music, listen to . . . "

For some stations, he signs autographs that will be given away to listeners. Mostly, he reads the scripts that are written for him. "Sorry, I can't say 'best station,'" he says to one deejay. "It wouldn't be fair to the competition."

Johnson spends an hour longer in the media building that he had planned. While waiting inside for a limousine, he asks Ganick to stay next to him so he doesn't "get ambushed" into another interview, autograph or snapshot. Yet, he gladly talks to a Dutch singer-deejay who wants to bring him to Holland for a concert. Then Ganick takes Johnson home in her car.

Johnson said later he felt he "had a real ease" dealing with the media at Fan Fair. "I had to watch for the real traditionalists who wanted to make me out to be noncountry. I don't think I heard any loaded questions from anybody.

"I was surprised they knew 'Bluer Than Blue,' I was grateful," he said. "The (country) audience doesn't know about it. When I sing 'Bluer Than Blue,' they are surprised that I'm that guy.

Johnson is standing with his guitar in front of 12,000 people at the RCA Records show at Fan Fair. He is about to introduce singer Vince Gill. "Why do I feel like Johnny Carson right now?" he asks the crowd.

Johnson's task is to emcee the two-hour show and play three songs on a huge stage that has been divided in half to avoid delays changing equipment between performers. The singer-guitarist had planned to debut his new "techno-acoustic band" -- a synthesizer player, an acoustic guitarist and himself -- but after a four-hour rehearsal the previous night, it was decided the synthesizer player wasn't going to work. To compound matters, Johnson's wife Sally dropped his guitar earlier in the day, chipping a piece near one of the pegs.

Johnson gets off to a smooth start as the fans instantly recognize his opening number, "Give Me Wings." He may not look like a typical country star in his plain red shirt, pleated khaki pants and track shoes, introducing such established performers as Eddy Raven, who is wearing a leather jacket with fringe, custom-made cowboy boots and a huge guitar- belt buckle. But Johnson just tries to be himself.

While the others perform, he stands off to the side studying the RCA-issued biographies of the people he'll introduce. Yet a spontaneous comment produces his best line of the night: "Earl Thomas Conley has more hits than (he pauses) I have."

He pays attention to the band Restless Heart's performance, smiling and clapping just like any other member of the audience. After the closing act is safely onstage, Johnson packs up his guitar, finds his wife and heads off for a late dinner.

"I think the emceeing came off all right," he said later. "It may not have appeared to be much work, but my brain was full quite a bit of the time . . . I do get abstract (with the patter). I have to learn this new art-form.

Johnson, his guitarist, Don Potter, and Teddy Gentry of the best-selling country group Alabama are singing Johnson's hit "The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder." They are sitting in a recreational vehicle turned dressing room. In a few hours, Johnson and Potter will sing "Moon" in front of some 65,000 people in a field in Fort Payne, Ala., for "June Jam," an annual day-long charity concert thrown by Alabama. When Johnson gets to the chorus, Gentry will waltz onstage and join on the harmonies.

Johnson has worked up a tentative set but he is not sure about a couple of songs. He sings "Jacques Cousteau," a witty blues send-up, and Gentry smiles with approval. Then Gentry asks for a guitar and offers a silly song about salt-free salt and sugar-free sugar. All three singers laugh.

Johnson wonders whether to do a song about sex. "Do it the way you do it," Gentry advises him about his part of the show. "Let me hear 'Wings.'"

Johnson and Potter play it, and Gentry joins in on the chorus. Johnson likes the three-part harmony so much he invites Gentry to join in on "Wings" onstage. They agree to meet again to rehearse just before Johnson goes onstage.

Johnson won't perform for at least two hours. So he heads over to the food tent, where he joins well-known Nashville disc jockey Charlie Douglas for lunch. Johnson explains that he's putting together a band for his fall tour, when he will open for Alabama and Restless Heart. Douglas offers the name of a reliable guitar player.

Next stop is the media tent, where Johnson answers questions at a brief press conference and tapes station-identification announcements and signs autographs.

Later in the dressing room, Johnson' ensemble rehearses again. Then he and Potter change into fresh shirts, grab their acoustic guitars and head for the stage. A security guard stops them at the foot of the stairs and asks who they are -- prompting a stage manager to scurry over and say, "He's our next act."

Johnson and Potter offer six songs. They skip the one about sex but do "Bluer Than Blue." Gentry joins them for "Wings" and "Moon," and his arrival brings a huge cheer from the audience. After 26 minutes onstage, the day's work is apparently done.

It's nice to see a straight crowd; by that, I mean not loaded," Johnson said later. "I had a little anxiety about them going to eat us as an acoustic duo, alive."

The "June Jam" performance has underscored Johnson's need for a band. He said he felt as if he was in No Man's Land onstage. The lyrics and meaning of the song are important to him "but I've got to be bigger -- sound-wise and people-wise -- before I can even have an opportunity to get their attention."

The performance also prompted Johnson to rethink his stage persona. He figures he should be less conservative: He should plan less and approach his shows less seriously. Concluded the country newcomer: "I know that I'm going to be all right."

Johnson -- the man who used to sing the "Explore Minnesota" commercials for the state tourism office -- said he still agonizes over his decision to leave Minnesota. But he has resolved it for the moment.

"I'm in touch enough to know that I really have made this change," he said as he drove back from Alabama to Nashville in his mini-van. "But I've been too busy to feel much of anything.

"I feel pretty comfortable in Tennessee; I've been here enough. (He recorded many of his pop albums there.) I may indeed come back (to Minnesota). I'm trying it for five years here."

Before parting company for the evening, Johnson and manager Bowles agree that the next day, Sunday, will be a day off. But Monday they will meet to discuss renting a customized bus for the fall tour.

Having a customized touring bus will be a symbol that the folk and pop troubadour from Minnesota has arrived in country music. Whether or not he's ready for Nashville, it looks as if country music is ready for him.