MJ: 1985 The Perseverance of
Michael Johnson

By Lydia Hutchinson

The Performing Songwriter.
August 8, 2017
Michael Johnson left this earth two weeks shy of what would have, today, been his 73rd birthday. Known in wider circles for his 1980s radio hits "Bluer Than Blue," "This Night Won't Last Forever," "Give Me Wings" and "The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder," he was known by his fans and friends in the music community as a consummate artist, musician, performer and kind and gentle soul.

I had been a fan of Michael's before moving to Nashville in 1986, right about the time he'd gotten a record deal on a country music label and "Give Me Wings" was a No. 1 hit. When I started Performing Songwriter magazine in 1993, he became a regular contributor for almost a decade with a column called "The Solo Performer." With each article he showed his skill, humor and respect for his craft. And on a personal level, he validated the magazine and me when I was just getting started and consistently felt like I was in over my head. He was fiercely supportive, appreciative and always present. And I loved him dearly.

Michael certainly didn't have an easy road, by choice or circumstance. He walked through life carrying the bruised soul of an artist, in all its brilliant glory and weighty sorrow. He was hilariously funny, delivering self-deprecating one-liners with ease and perfect timing. He was an extraordinary musician, having studied classical guitar in Barcelona — a skill that was quite an anomaly in the country music world he so exquisitely graced. And he was unflinching in sharing his fears and regrets, helping those around him feel not quite so alone in theirs.

One of the things that moved me the most about Michael was his perseverance and dedication to his art and craft. I'm including one of my favorite essays of his below, which still makes me cry. It's so him: the humor, the vulnerability, the frustration and the dedication. He wrote it in 1996, and over a decade later—shortly after having quadruple heart bypass surgery—he read it to a group of music industry leaders at an event I helped organize. He spoke openly about what it felt like to face the possibility of not being able to sing again after damage done to his throat when tubes were removed, painting a vivid picture to help those individuals see artists as far more than a product they were charged with promoting. (And then, ever the performer, he laughed and threw in a trademark quip: "At this age I'm starting to lose my short-term memory. And my long-term memory. And my short-term memory.") Now over 20 years after having written it, his words on perseverance are still relevant. The timeless questions all artists ask, the self-doubt, the sacrifices, and the ultimate need to create.

It was perfectly fitting that Michael was performing right up until the end, gracing stages and giving everything and more to whoever showed up to hear him. Even as he suffered from emphysema in his last days, he would leave his oxygen in the dressing room to take the stage and power through his set. His respect and gratitude for audiences never ceased. He was a pro. Music was as much a part of who he was as the rhythm of his beat-up heart. The guitar an extension of his body.

One of the last times I was with Michael was about eight years ago when he took me to my first Nashville Symphony concert at the newly unveiled Symphony Center. We got dressed up for a big night out, and after we arrived and sat down in the seats he had chosen—directly behind the orchestra so we were looking right into the conductor's face—we both felt like giddy kids. We were smiling, laughing and in awe of the beauty of the musicians and instruments in front of us as they warmed up. And I knew he was thrilled to be able to give me this gift.

When the performance started, it felt like we were a part of the orchestra, virtually in the pit with them, following the maestro's every move. It was holy, overwhelming and one of the most moving experiences of my life. At one point I looked over at Michael and saw one of his hands holding mine and the other resting on his knee, his fingers gently conducting the air. And when I glanced up at his face, his eyes were closed and his cheek tear stained.

This is how I will remember my beautiful, broken, kind, funny, brilliant friend. A man with no daylight between the music and his soul.

Photo: Blue Rock Studio

Here's a link to all of Michael's marvelous Performng Songwriter articles. His email to me: On Mar 18, 2011, at 1:22 PM, Johnson Michael wrote: Hi Cind, Well, I'm finally getting to a few things. I'm consolidating the articles from Performing Songwriter into a book. I met up with the editor of the magazine last week and she's given me the ok to do it. So ..., please pull the articles off the site. I don't want to give them away for free anymore. Hopefully soon though, they'll be available on the site as a book for sale." He never got around to it. During one of my visits with him in June, I asked for permission to put them back on the site. Permission was granted. Cindy McArthur, Webmaster

Lydia's mention of Michael's essay can be found here.

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