Well-traveled musician finds local crowd just so

Sat, Sep 24, 2005

By Matt Conn
Marshfield News-Herald
Years of touring, a nomadic early life, performing to immense crowds and small gatherings throughout, and yet a constant remains just before Michael Johnson performs.

"Well, time to go be nervous," he said, standing outside just before taking the stage Friday at the Chestnut Avenue Center for the Arts in Marshfield.

Once on stage and ensconced in a purplish, greenish glow, Johnson appeared nothing but comfortable, fingers nimbly finding their mark on the fret board, even as he joked with the audience in between tunes.

"Marshfield, Wisconsin. You kind of have to be heading this way to get here," he said to laughter from about 70 lining the pews of the arts center, which was once a church.

Battling a cold, Johnson still sang songs of longing and love - like the fireflies who no longer find each other in the light of urban sprawl - and hilarity, with an elegant ode to those who make you feel just so "so-so."
The crowd responded with laughter and applause to songs and stories that continued throughout the performance.

"He's doing an outstanding job," said Mike Ryan of Marshfield during the intermission after a round of songs. "He's incredibly talented."
The arts center itself has been "a wonderful addition to the community," said Ryan, who had also attended a recent Celtic concert. His wife, Jane spoke in verbatim praise for the center's community beneficence.

Though Johnson said he still has a bit of nerves before each performance, his career has spanned several decades, and he said music is the only thing he has ever done or ever known how to do.

It began in 1964 when he won a folk singing contest which came with a record deal from Epic Records. A year later, he studied classical guitar in Barcelona with guitarist Graciano Tarrago, and a year after that he lived in a garage in Bel Air with Steve Martin and Gary Mule Deer for just a while before touring the Orient with musician Randy Sparks.

Johnson, who now lives in Nashville, said his songs often start with a kernel of truth and expand, or if they're not his stories, he adds his own individual touch. The song must ring true, more than being archival or historically accurate, he explained a couple of hours before his performance.

A smaller crowd in venues like the Chestnut center actually are preferable, Johnson said, because the interaction is far more nuanced than being before a throng of thousands.

He said the business has changed and music has changed - relying less and less on melody and harmony - and folk appears to have dwindled from larger groups more down to the singer/songwriter, but he said he still has too much advice to give to the aspiring musician.

Those new to the business have asked if they should stick with it, but Johnson said he answers that if someone were dedicated to music, they would heed no advice and continue despite all obstacles. The waffling types may want to try something else.

For the others, he offers a different sort of advice.

"Don't quit," he said.

"Because most everyone does."

Dan Young/Marshfield News-Herald. Michael Johnson performs his song "Magic Time" Friday at the Chestnut Avenue Center for the Arts.

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