Nothing Lasts Forever: Michael Johnson finds things sweeter the second time around
By Edward Morris
It's easy for a pop music star to "go country." All he needs is a Harlan Howard song, a steel guitar to nuzzle the lyrics, and a publicist to explain to the press how his client has really been a country music fanatic all his life. Alas, this ploy, though often tried, seldom succeeds. Country music—the kind that endures—is sincerity first and sound second. Almost anybody can duplicate the sound, but it takes an emotional sales job to establish the sincerity. Michael Johnson seems t have made the sale. WINGS, his first country album, produced four hit singles, two of which went No. 1. More important than chart position, though, is the fact that his records tend to have the sensitivity and distinctiveness of which country standards are born.
Johnson has been a recording artist for nearly 20 years. He did his first album THERE IS A BREEZE, in 1971 for Atlantic Records, following a short stint as a member of the (Chad) Mitchell Trio. But it was not until 1978 that he made a permanent mark ihn pop music. Working with producers Steve Gibson and Brent Maher (the latter who is once again his producer), Johnson hit big with "Bluer Than Blue" and "Almost Like Being In Love." He followed these winners with "This Night Won't Lsat Forever." As it turned out, this night wasn't the only thing that didn't last forever—neither did Johnson's stay on the charts. Although he continued to tour and record during the late 70's and early 80's, he never managed to score big in pop again.
Then, in 1985, under Maher's guidance, Johnson paired with Sylvia for the frothy, lilting country charmer, "I Love You By Heart." This lyrical lightweight absolutely floated up the charts to a Top 10 roost. And since Johnson had lost his record contact with his ld label and was looking fr a new deal, he signed with Sylvia's label, RCA. Johnson showed his appeal when his first country single, "Gotta Learn To Live Without You," went to no. 12. But it was his second effort, "Give Me Wings," that grabbed the country audience by its heart. Billboard raved about the song's "sweet, sensitive lyrics and melody" and its "clear feminist perspective." "Wings" flew to the very top of the charts, as did the next release, "The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder," a domestic devotional of reassuring tenderness. Clearly, Johnson was not int he business of grinding out formula ditties.
"I fight very hard for my songs to really be about something," Johnson explains, "and to not be just some more lovely love songs." His insistence on musical substance is immediately evident in THAT'S THAT, his new album. In subject matter, the albums swept from the varied delights of loving to the hollow finality of loving—to the hollow finality of losing—and through all the shade and sunlight between.
To properly follow the strength of WINGS, Johnson and Maher turned to some of the most gifted songwriters in the business. Among those were country award-winners Don Schlitz, Craig Bickhardt (of SKB), Rhona Kaye Fleming and Hugh Prestwood. From the pop corrals came such high stepping writers as Janis Ian, Parker McGee and Randy Vanwarmer. Johnson, himself, pitched in with Maher and Schlitz to write "Crying Shame," the first single release. Prestwood, who also wrote "The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder," contributed four songs, including the title cut.
Unlike many artists, Johnson says he relishes working in the studio. "I just kind of pounce on it," he grins. As accomplished guitarist, Johnson plays on all his recording sessions and helps Maher and fellow guitarist Don Potter prepare arrangements for the other musicians. "We demo the albums together, which is kind of fun to do," he says. "Recent 'plays' his legs, and Don and I do the guitars and live vocals. We decide at that stage whether or not a song will fly. If it works at that level, we know it will work when it's expanded."
If there is a drawback to recording, Johnson admits, it's in not always having an audience to play to. "I really like to have someone out there to sing for," he says. It helps me whether it's a secretary from the studio, somebody dropping by or delivering a pizza or whoever, It's nice. Emmylou Harris was in the day we did "Roller Coaster 'Run.' She just came in and sat down, and that was the take we used. It was because she was there. I just wanted to sing for her. Those things are really important to me. Being aware of an audience makes me conscious of why I'm doing it. I don't oversell it...I just get involved. It seems to have more of a purpose when I know I'm doing it for someone."
In the months leading up to the completion of THAT'S THAT, Johnson found plenty of people to sing to, sharing the bill with Alabama on a 30-date concert tour that regularly drew audiences of 10,000 or more. It was a stretch in more ways than one for the man who's spent most of his life as a soloist. "I'm a little intimidated by the presence of my band," he acknowledges. "It's like I represent them on stage—like I'm their mouthpiece. The show I have done all my life—and the one I still prefer to do—is one in which I know the first two songs I'm going to do and the one I'm going to end with. Then I really like to go out on stage and fill in the rest as it comes to me. With a band, though, I've got to be more sculpted."
Easier than his shift to playing with a band was his shift in musical formats. "I didn't have to shift any gears to go from pop to country. But I did have to get into gear—to do more and to take a much more active role in the studio." He did not play guitar on his pop albus, he adds.
Johnson's duet with Juice Newton, "It Must Be You," is one of the several highlights of THAT'S THAT. "I love to sing with a woman," says Johnson, "especially love songs. Juice has a mystique about her. And I've always admired her sound. She's got a real edge to her voice. She sings real hard—she belts."
The subtlety and richness of several songs on the album particularly intrigue Johnson. "Roller Coaster Run" for example, is a truck driver's lament on the surface—and quite a good one at that. But riding beneath the story is a more universal lament about the uneven and disruptive rhythms of life. Similarly, "Diamond Dreams," is both about baseball and the pursuit of one's own loftiest aspirations. Maher and Johnson opted to rearrange the ending of "Dreams to make the story's outcome more up in the air. "We wanted to have the sweet with the bitter," he explains.
There is nothing subtle, however, in the message of "I Will Whisper Your Name," the second single that THAT'S THAT. Like "The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder," it is a devotional and a love song in the purest sense. Written by Randy Vanwarmer ("Just When I Needed You Most"), "Whisper" will very likely become a wedding classic, just as "Moon" has evolved into an anniversary standard.
"That's That," the title song, is a masterful coming-to-terms statement about a love affair stopped cold. But it is joyously balanced out by the rollicking "Oh, Rosalee," a bouncy tribute to a love still very warm. "Some People's Lives" hauntingly mourns the lot of those who are starved for human affections as it quietly celebrates the good fortune of those ennobled by it.
For several months after recording WINGS, Johnson commuted between Nashville and his home and family in Minnesota. Now he's a resident of Music City and ready to settle in for the long haul. "I'm starting to realize that I'm not using this city," he says. "Now that the album is finished and the tour ha wound down, I need to start writing."