Michael Johnson Photo
Michael Johnson came back to the Twin Cities last year to sing at the State Fair. "There's a real renaissance going on" in Nashville, where he lives now, he said.

Minnesotans in Music City

Transplants talk about what they've faced, found in Nashville
By Jon Bream/Staff Writer
Nashville, Tenn.

Gather five longtime Minnesotans who've relocated to Music City and they'll start talking about what they miss most from "up home." Such things as Vietnamese restaurants, wild-rice soup, Vikings games, lakes, parks and humidity that's less than 90 percent.

For better or worse, they've settled here to further their careers in the music business. Over (what else?) coffee and LaCroix water. the Star Tribune recently asked these carpetbaggers to compare notes about fears, feminism, regionalism and other issues they confronted by moving to Nashville.

Participants included singers Paulette Carlson, Michael Johnson and Prudence Johnson, gospel-music talent scout and producer Dez Dickerson, and country-song publisher Ree Guyer.

Q: Was it scary moving here?

Carlson/ "It wasn't for me. Moneywise, it was not the most pleasant. In this business most people have to go through that period "

Michael Johnson/ "I came under good circumstances and I was frightened. I was frightened for myself: I was afraid my wife and kids weren't going to like it. The move was traumatic. There were tears. We had to bring a couple of Minnesota rocks with us. I was afraid [his wife] Sally would make decisions about life that it just wasn't right for her. The kids are absolutely plugged in. And Sally is much more comfortable here than I am."

Carlson/ "Some lady friend of mine said, When you adapt to something, you adapt down. When you commit to something, you commit up. " So I think it's an attitude thing. I've always committed to my career. You go, no matter what the trials."

Prudence Johnson/ "I don't know if it was scary to come here as it was stressful.I thought I was a big girl, I can move by myself. I found I got really lonesome. I missed my friends and family so much. If someone called me with work in Minnesota, I said, 'Yeah.

"Up there, work always came to me. I wasn't making a lot of money, but I always knew I could count on a certain amount of money coming in. Coming here has been scary in that sense. I have to break into a whole new place. My big problem is I'm still not exactly sure what I'm doing. I envy people who know exactly what their style is. I still go: Am I a jazz singer? Am I a country singer? I think I just have to start writing more material. I've spent less than half the time here since I got here. I suppose I'm trying to avoid the fact that I've moved.

Q: Is it different for women coming here than for men?

Guyer/ "I've never made a big difference out of that. I use being a woman to my advantage.

Carlson/ "I do the same thing.

Guyer/ "Once I get in the door, they know I'm all business and I'm very serious about what I'm doing. Only on one occasion did someone make a pass at me. I don't think it's real different for women.

"When I came here in 1986, I remember Billy Sherrill [one of the top producers at the time] saying in a meeting, What's a nice girl like you from Minnesota doing here? You should go back to Minnesota and be a nurse and get out of this crazy male business.

"At the time, it was a good-ol'-boys' network. It has drastically changed since I've been here.

"In the corporate structure here it is harder for women. They usually have to take two steps backwards in order to take one step forward. They usually have to take a cut in pay.

Prudence Johnson/ "I don't consider it a disadvantage, especially doing what I do. But I can't tell you how many times people said, 'Oh, you're moving to Nashville; it's so much harder for women in country music.

Carlson/ "It is the numbers."

Guyer/ "There are fewer women on [record] labels. For instance, Arista [Records] has 12 acts on their roster and only two are women.

Michael Johnson/ "I think that's a belief across the board. What I hear is women don't sell as many records as men and they don't draw as many people to their shows as men. Simply, it's because it's the women who buy records and drag their husbands to concerts."

Guyer/ "That has been true until recently. Trisha Yearwood and Wynonna Judd are changing that."

Prudence Johnson/ "If it's true, it's true. I just feel like saying, "Shut up. I don't want to hear about it. It's not going to stop me from doing what I do."

Dickerson/ "There are more women in the contemporary Christian and gospel music industries than anyone imagines, than in all strata of the industry. To a degree, this is America and certain things apply. I got used to certain things a long time ago. I'm a black American male, and I'd probably have to work twice as hard to get half as far. But that's OK. In the long run, it's going to make me stronger. It's probably true of women."

Q: Other than Lynn Anderson, who's from North Dakota, and Eddie Rabbitt from New Jersey, no big-name country singer is from north of Indiana or southern Ohio.

Carlson/ "I think the business has gone south. It's easier with folks from the area. I think it's a matter of location, for one thing. People say, 'Country music in Minnesota?' Yes, Yes, we have cows and farmers and truck drivers."

Everyone laughs.

"The roots of the music may be down here [but] it comas fram over in Europe, and that's the same for the folk music in Minnesota. I think it is mainly the location of Nashville, being in the South and the Grand Ole Opry getting such a great start [here].

Q: Do you find that Northerners are treated differently than Southerners in Nashville?

Carlson/ "I don't."

Guyer/ "Everybody is from somewhere else."

Carlson / "When I moved down here, people said, 'Get rid of those Yankee [license] plates.' I find people down here are very nice. They have different ways than I was used to back home. Nobody played cards. Nobody invited me to their house to match me up with a fellow. I kind of felt lonesome, too. They don't play cards; they don't go out drinking and dancing.

Guyer / "One of the real adjustments for me was the accents. One time I went into Shoney's [restaurant] and I asked for a pop. She thought I was asking what kind of pie they have."

Dickerson/ "It's, 'What kind of Coke do you want? Slice Coke? Sprite Coke?'"

Prudence Johnson / "I wonder sometimes if that persona accent being from the South that doesn't help you."

Carlson/ "I don't think it matters anymore.

Guyer/ "Pam Lewis [Garth Brooks' comanager] told me 70 percent of the [country-music] buying public was from Oklahoma or Texas three years ago. There's got to be something to having a Southern accent,

Michael Johnson/ "I think there's a lot to it. That' 'Changes in Attitude, Changes in Latitude' Jimmy Buffett song might have a grain of truth to it.

"Maybe there is something that goes along with this history, culture and lifestyle that lends itself to a nice little groove."

Q: Do you think the environment in which an artist lives has an impact on his or her music?

Dickerson/ "Culture does impact art. The way you grow up shapes your values, your attitudes, your lifestyle, and that in turn is going to affect whatever expression comes out of you. I think the whole reason that the "Minneapolis Sound' was able to evolve was because there was not the really heavily identified black culture in the Twin Cities that you have in, say, Louisville, Ky., or Dallas, Texas. You grew up listening to Sly [and the Family Stone] and the Beatles and whatever, and it all came out when you played. Whereas if you grew up in New Orleans or Jacksonville, Fla., culturally, things were more polarized; therefore, musically things were more polarized."

Prudence Johnson/ "How do you feel about that in this town?''

Dickerson/ "From outside, people have a notion that this is strictly a country town. It's not. There are so many talented people who have quietly moved here. And there's going to be an explosion: the musical Rainbow Coalition town. It's a much more livable city than either New York or L.A. I've talked to a lot of people who are plain tired of trying to live in those cities."

Michael Johnson/ "There's a real renaissance going on here."

Guyer/ "It's just great music. Our company is real diverse because we did come from Minneapolis. If I had lived here all my life, I'd have stone-country writers. But one of my writers is a Juilliard-taught violinist. Jeff Harrington wrote a song for Heart [a rock group]; Will Rambeau was a rocker here, but he writes great country songs. I don't have any writers that write down-home country. That, I think, is the only reason we can survive: to have stuff that was that different. It is an advantage having that culture behind me.

Q: How long did it take you to " figure out Nashville?

Guyer/ "Geographically, you never do.

Prudence Johnson/ "Every single street has at least three names. You get six blocks and it's this, then for six blocks it's that."

Michael Johnson/ "I remember sitting at the corner of Harding and Harding."

Everyone laughs.

Dickerson/ "The thing I've found that tells the whole story of the difference between Nashville and Minnesota: In Minnesota they deliver your newspaper to the door and you take your trash to the curb. In Brentwood [a Nashville suburb], they pick up your trash at the door and they leave your newspaper at the curb.

Q: How long did it take you to figure out the music business here?

Michael Johnson/ "Someone told me it takes two years just to meet everybody in the business. It takes me longer, because I go on the road, and I don't have a memory and I'm kind of quiet.

Guyer/ "It takes three years to network. I didn't know a soul. l'd read all the trade magazines and look at pictures of people. Then l'd get invited to parties."

Prudence Johnson/ "I'm hoping I don't have to meet everybody. I wished I would have moved to a place like this when I was 25. As I get older, I get more reclusive.

Dickerson/ "In the gospel industry, it's eaasy to et to know everybody all at once. For me [as a talent scout], it's like wearing a pork-chop suit to a dog kennel. All the people you could ever want to talk to will find you. There are people I don't want to know."

Q: A Do you feel like you belong here? Do you feel like a Minnesotan or Nashvillian?

Michael Johnson/ "I feel like a guest here. I like it, but it's not my home. I have two homes and I don't live in either one of them. I love Colorado, where I spent my first 20 years, and I love Minnesota, where I spent my second 20 years. There are a lot of people who wouldn't live here if it weren't for the business, or a lot of people here who hope to make enough money here to enable them to retire wherever they came from, or somewhere else."

Dickerson/ "For us [him and his wife and son], moving here was divinely inspired and guided. There's a sense of being at peace with being here. But someday we want to go back to Minnesota. We have a 5-year-old son who was 3 when we moved here. We go back regularly enough so I remind him, We're Minnesotans. If you say y'all, you're out of the will. We're not fixin' to do anything."

Michael Johnson / "My wife says y'all, too."

Q: Ree, is it different for you because you're married to a man from here?

Guyer/ "I'd love to live in Minnesota. My whole family is in Minnesota. I'd love to raise muy children in Minnesota. Family values are there. But my life's work is here. Most of my dear, dear friends in life are here now. So, I don't know."

Prudence Johnson/ "I want to get out of Minnesota. I don't want to think of it as home. I go back there because of the people there. But I hate that goddang weather. I don't have a home anymore. I live here and I'm trying to adjust. I want to move forward."

Carlson/ "I feel like home is where I'm at. Nashville definitely feels like home to me. But when I get up to Minnesota, I'm like in seventh heaven."

Dickerson/ "I have a sayinag: 'Home is where your stuff is.' Seriously, it's a little different for me. My parents are originally from Clarksville [Miss.], which is about 40 minutes from here. So there's this weird kind of roots thing here, even though I grew up in Minnesota and I'm definitely a Minnesotan. I have an uncle and aunt who lived in L.A. and retired back here. I used to stay with my uncle in L.A., so it's a little bit of home here, too."

Who's who in this group of transplanted Minnesotans

From left: Prucence Johnson, Michael Johnson, Paulette Carlson, Rea Guyer/ and Dez Dickerson

Paulette Carlson/ She grew up in Winsted and Moose Lake. After singing in Minnesota country-rock bands including Skunk Hollow, she headed to Nashville in 1980 with $800 in savings, hoping to become a big-time singer. Carlson said an acquaintance told her she knew of a woman in Nashville "who knew somebody." Carlson called the woman, who told her to call publisher Carmel Taylor. Within six months Carlson got a songwriting job with the Oak Ridge Boys. She signed an uneventful solo deal with RCA Records and eventually found stardom fronting Highway 101, a rock-flavored quartet formed in 1986, singing "The Bed You Made for Me," "Cry Cry Cry and other hits. Carlson recorded her first solo album. "Love Goes On, " in late 1991, and she is working on her next album.

Dez Dickerson/ Best known as the guitarist in Prince's band from 1980 to '83, he tried fronting his own rock bands and then switched to producing contemporary Christian music. This St. Paulite moved to Nashville in 1990. He had a meeting to talk about producing projects for Star Song, a gospel publishing and production company, and he ended up with an offer to become a vice president, talent scout and producer. "Here, I'm not just Prince's guitar player anymore," he says.

Ree Guyer/ In November 1985 this St. Paul native settled in Nashville after having spent two years commuting, trying to establish a song-publishing company. Wrensong Publishing, which pitches writers' songs to producers and recording artists, has been responsible for such No. 1 country songs as "Little Things" by the Oak Ridge Boys and "Where've You Been" by Kathy Mattea. The first businessperson she called in Nashville was publisher Karen Conrad. "Nobody (back home) has a clue what I do, she says. "When I go home I don't talk (to her friends) about what I do."

Michael Johnson/ This well-traveled singer-guitarist spent his first 20 years in Colorado and his next 20 in Minnesota. In the late 1970s he scored a series of pop hits including "Bluer Than Blue. After realizing he had made 22 trips to Nashville in a three-month period, he and his family moved there in 1986. He found success in country music with "Give Me Wings, " the biggest country song of 1987. His latest album. "Michael Johnson, is on Atlantic Records. The first businessperson he called in Nashville was his producer, Brent Maher. Says Johnson: "People (in Minnesota) still ask me when I'm coming back."

Prudence Johnson/ She went to high school with Paulette Carlson in Moose Lake and later spent 15 years in the Twin Cities working as a singer with Rio Nido. Women Who Cook! and as a soloist, making frequent appearances on Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion. " One of the best-known singers in the Twin Cities, Johnson recorded several albums for Twin Cities-based Red House Records. She relocated to Nashville in January 1991 because she didn't "really feel like there's any real music business going on in Minneapolis. There's a lot of really great talent there. "The first businessperson she called in Nashville was Chet Atkins' road manager, whom she'd met doing "A Prairie Home Companion. " She recently formed a band, Johnson & Rue, with fellow Minnesota carpetbagger Gary Rue.