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Classical grass:
Michael Johnson hits informal note
with Minnesota Orchestra


By Jon Bream

Star Tribune, Minneapolis, MN
June 23, 2000
Last year, singer/guitarist Michael Johnson skipped what would have been his 24th annual post-Christmas concert in the Twin Cities. He knew he would be performing instead this summer with the Minnesota Orchestra for the first time.

"I love that symphony," said Johnson, who lived in the Twin Cities for 19 years before moving to Nashville in 1985.

Since he hasn't played a concert with an orchestra in three years, Johnson has been doing his homework. He "updated and upgraded" his orchestral arrangements with a Nashville collaborator. (He'll do his hits, including "Bluer Than Blue" and "Give Me Wings," plus the standard "What'll I Do," among others.) And he's been working on his classical guitar chops for Villa Lobos' "Study in E Minor."

"I play that piece every night," he said from his Nashville home. "I don't perform it; I just work on it in the hotel rooms."

Despite having played with four or five other orchestras and having studied classical guitar, Johnson will not don a tuxedo for Sunday's concert. "I might have to wear my concert jeans -- my black jeans," he said.

Johnson is used to playing solo. In fact, this week he finished recording a new solo concert album. He performed at the Bluebird Cafe, Nashville's famous intimate club where songwriters showcase their tunes; his disc will be the first in a series of live discs made there.

Meanwhile, he has been touring solo as an opening act for Wynonna Judd. Later this year, he will open 40 shows for Kenny Rogers.

"I try to keep 'em laughing between tearjerkers," Johnson, 55, joked of his warmup assignments. "I'm not trying to be a pop/country guy now. I'm too old; I'm past it. I don't need to be part of the horse race. Visuals and video are so important now. I don't want to pretend I'm 15 years younger or more."

So he's recording a collection of 1940s tunes. "Not Cherry Poppin' Daddies, but half-forgotten ballads," he said.

An infrequent songwriter, he's taking pride that bluegrass superstar Alison Krauss recorded one of his tunes, "Empty Hearts," on her new album. "I wrote it with Michael McDonald [of Doobie Brothers fame] over the telephone 19 years ago," Johnson said. "In three phone calls, by the way."

Playing with symphony orchestras, opening for country stars, recording '40s standards and writing for the biggest name in bluegrass, Johnson indeed wears many hats.

"That's typical of my career," he said. "I feel like four people who've never met."

What: With the Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by Scott Terrell.

When: 7 p.m. Sun.

Where: Orchestra Hall, 11th St. and Nicollet Mall, Mpls.

Tickets: $15-$35; 612-371-5656.

Web site: http://www.mjblue.com


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