Michael Johnson has viewed the music industry from every vantage point from struggling solo artist to hit-maker. He started making music as a folkie in the 1960s, turned into a force on the adult-contemporary scene with 1978’s “Bluer Than Blue” and became a successful country artist in the 1980s.
So when he was offered a chance to do something he’d never done before - act as front man for the Maryville Intermediate School Orchestra - he decided to give it a try.
“Nobody’s ever asked me to do that before,” Johnson says of performing with a youth orchestra. “I thought that was just really enticing.”
Johnson will perform with the MIS Orchestra at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 13, at the Nutt Theatre at Clayton Center for the Arts. Proceeds benefit the orchestra, which is directed by Bill Robinson, the former longtime director of the Maryville High School Orchestra.
“He needs to raise some dough,” Johnson says of Robinson. “He wants some money for recording equipment, TV equipment, some software and a little bit of hardware for teaching aids for the orchestra. That stuff doesn’t come cheap, but it’s indispensable.”
Johnson, who has lived in Nashville for more than 20 years, is connected to Maryville through Tom Robinson, the director’s younger brother. Johnson and Tom Robinson have been friends since 1987, and when Robinson was in Nashville in December and suggested the concert idea to Johnson, the singer pledged his support.
Johnson, 66, came to town Tuesday to check out the Clayton Center and meet with Robinson and the orchestra. He also used part of the day to promote the event with the press.
“I can’t wait” to perform with the kids, Johnson says, sitting down for an interview on the stage of the Nutt Theatre’s little sister, the Lambert Recital Hall, after posing for photographers and a television crew at both auditoriums. Johnson was to meet the orchestra for the first time in the afternoon. He’ll rehearse with the young musicians again on the day of the show.
The program is still being solidified, but he knows he’ll play a few songs on his own and some with the orchestra. The easygoing singer already has his patter planned. He’s going to introduce the orchestra as his “string section,” describing them as “professionals I’ve hired.”
Johnson played violin in the orchestra when he was briefly a student at Colorado State University, which had given him a gymnastics scholarship. Born in Alamosa, Colo., and reared in Denver, he’d started playing guitar at 13 when he was recovering from pneumonia and had to limit his activities. He learned violin when he minored in strings at CSU, but he insists he was never very good.
“It’s not an easy instrument to learn to play even OK,” he says. “Guitar, you can learn to play it OK pretty quickly; not violin.”
After two years in college, Johnson won a talent contest that netted him a recording deal with Epic Records, and he began touring campuses and pubs.
Oddly, Johnson had never been to a concert until he was in college. The first show he attended was headlined by Bud & Travis.
“They were Southwestern folksingers, and they both played nylon-string guitars,” he recalls. “They sang in English and Spanish - beautiful, beautiful songs. And they were very funny; they did lots of entertaining. They were actually quite an item in their day.
“The second concert I went to, I played at; I opened for Judy Collins. Scared me to death.”
Johnson has gotten over being intimidated by Collins, but he’s still a fan.
“We just did a duet together that’s on her new CD, so for me that’s like meeting the Beatles,” he says.
Just as his career was beginning, Johnson decided he wanted to improve his guitar skills - by studying with a classical-guitar master in Barcelona, Spain - when most other pop musicians were happy to master just three chords.
“I did it because I told everybody I was going to,” he says. “Pretty soon my girlfriend was saying, ‘Are you going? When are you going?’ “
He researched Spanish guitarists at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and started sending letters to ask if they would teach him.
“Several of them just passed out of hand, and others sent me a form, and I filled it out and sent a cassette demo tape,” he says. “This one fellow who was a great teacher - he’s gone now - Graciano Tarrago was his name, said, ‘If you can get over here, I’ll teach you.’ So that was it.
“I saved up $600 and lived there for nine months.”
Johnson would have stayed longer, but “I was broke. I was livin’ on a dime, so I came back.”
In addition, the situation in Spain was unsettled.
“(Generalissimo Francisco) Franco was still in power,” recalls Johnson. “There were guys with machine guns standing on every street corner of the main streets. I had friends who went to jail while I was there for singing protest songs like the folkies sang. It was serious.”
Johnson returned to the States and worked with Randy Sparks in the New Society before joining the Chad Mitchell Trio, which no longer featured Mitchell in the group but did have a talented singer-guitarist named John Denver.
“I learned a lot from him,” Johnson says. “We did a lot of college gigs. We did 191 shows in one year. We supported Eugene McCarthy, and we were in Chicago in ‘68 with the Democratic Convention, with the riots.
“I think we were on somebody’s list because we did our political-satire songs, and people would step out of line at the airport and take a quick picture, and you knew it wasn’t a fan. It was a guy looking like a bad weatherman in a suit, and he’d disappear.”
“We were just kids. We didn’t know what was going on. We were supporting liberals. I’m still an old hippie, but I’m a bit of a centrist.”
Johnson’s solo career in the 1970s hit the jackpot with “Bluer Than Blue,” his first Top 40 hit.
“I did five albums based on that success and then moved over to country and got lucky again, so it was a double career, really,” he says.
While people remember the hit singles - “Almost Like Being in Love,” “This Night Won’t Last Forever,” “Give Me Wings,” “The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder” - continuing to make music is Johnson’s goal.
“I want to make the next record,” he says. “That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do - make the next record.”