The Ballad of Michael Johnson
The Nashville hit-maker on returning home, discovering his daughter, and his new album
I grew up in Colorado and after college I won a national talent contest. It came with a record deal and a gig opening for Judy Collins. We’re still friends—we recorded a duet for her last CD.
I would make deals with myself: “When I’m 25, I’m going to get serious. When I’m 27....” In my 40s, I woke up and realized this must be what I do: music.
I studied classical guitar in Spain, because I’d told everyone I would. We would sleep with our guitars under our beds, and when we woke we’d just start playing.
The great folksinger Josh White gave me the best advice: “Get good.” Simple as that.
John Denver, David Boise, and I joined the Chad Mitchell Trio and then formed our own folk trio in 1968. I was with John in New York when he bought his wire-rimmed glasses.
I was in an off-broadway play in 1969 and it went on a tour that ended in Chicago. A guy there told me, “Since you have nothing to lose now, why don’t you move to Minneapolis?” Nothing to lose! I thought, “God, it must be an awful place!” But I went anyway.
I had some hits, like “Bluer Than Blue,” and moved to Nashville in 1985 hoping they’d let me get away with an acoustic, softer sound. But RCA wanted me to be more country.
I can only be me. Some people are good at being someone else—that’s called acting.
Mary, the mother of my daughter, put her name out there in case our child wanted to find her. Three years ago, she did. And our daughter, Truly Carmichael, then asked her, “Okay, so who’s my dad?” She’d been adopted at four days old. So Mary showed her my website. Truly waited two days before contacting me. I was so anxious about meeting her, I came down with shingles.
I said a lot of stupid things in that first conversation, like, “You sound so grown up!” She said, “Well, I am 40.”
She’s a classically trained singer and plays the Celtic harp. I asked her three times to be on my new album, Moonlit Déjà Vu. She finally agreed. We’re learning how to be in each other’s life—it’s not like we’ll be playing Monopoly on the family-room floor anytime soon.
John Gorka convinced me to sign with Red House Records, and that’s why I moved to Minneapolis again this fall. By coincidence, Truly also moved here this fall—her husband is now the managing director of the Children’s Theatre Company.
There’s a lot of reflection on the album. That may be the result of my quadruple-bypass surgery four years ago, thinking, “How do I get ready to not be here?” It was an epiphany, and it slowed me down, which was what I needed. Now I like getting to shows early and getting warmed up. I meditate. And I don’t catch an airplane before 10 a.m.
Michael Johnson plays the Cedar Cultural Center on December 28. Find his album at mjblue.com