A TOUCH IN TENNESSEE-AND THAT’S THAT
Hilary and I just got back from a week in Nashville and Blackberry Farm (just outside Knoxville) with our great friends, Terri and Bill. Something pretty interesting happened on our second night in Nashville at our hotel. But first, some
Backstory. Two weeks earlier Hilary and I were driving to church. A song came on a Sirius Station that I immediately recognized from many, many years ago. Bluer Than Blue—a song I loved. It’s sad. His girl has left him. Putting on a good face, he boasts of more room in his closet and he can now stay out all night. But he quickly laments, “You’re the only light this empty room has ever had—life without you is going to be bluer than blue.”
I couldn’t remember the name of the artist. It nagged at me until later that afternoon I looked up the song on iTunes and—of course—the song was sung by Michael Johnson. It was a huge hit in 1978. Was it really forty years ago?
I seemed to recall there was another song of his that I liked even better. I found that as well on iTunes—That’s That—and if anything it’s even sadder. The chorus gives it away.
I can scream I can shout, I can cry my eyes out, but she’s not coming back, that’s that. I can hope I can pray, but she’s still gone away, and she’s not coming back, and That’s That.
I probably played those songs hundreds of times back then and pretty sure I learned to play That’s That on my guitar. It had been a very long time since I thought or heard of those songs.
I instantly downloaded the two songs on my phone and iPod and, as is my nature, listened to them constantly over the next two weeks. It was like I had just reconnected with some old friends.
Here are links to the two songs. But be forewarned—it is impossible to listen to these just once.
Forward to Tennessee. Two weeks later, we were in Nashville with our good friends. None of us had ever been, and we were excited to check out the much-acclaimed food and music scene. We were not disappointed. Our first full day was jam packed: Country Music Hall of Fame, tour of RCA’s Studio B where Elvis Presley recorded many of his hits from 1957 to 1977, lunch at a honkey-tonk bar on Broadway—one of about a hundred—with no less than thirty bachelorette parties in full bloom, and it was only Noon—the famed Ryman Theatre, and miles of walking the streets. Got lucky with a great table on a walk-in on a Saturday night at the red hot RAD—Rolfs and Daughters—restaurant in the Germantown section. After a great dinner, we headed back to our hotel, the vintage Hermitage, for a nightcap.
The Touch. It was lively in the Oak Bar. Game 6 of the Brewers-Dodgers series was on the TVs, but the sound was muted. After our drinks arrived, I uncharacteristically pulled out my phone and dialed up Bluer Than Blue for Bill and Terri to have a listen. Hilary had already heard it fifty times. Other patrons sitting nearby glanced over at our table with that look ‘What are you doing?’, but no one seemed to mind.
Within a minute, one of the waitstaff rushed over to our table. ‘Uh, oh’ I thought, but before I could mute my phone she breathlessly asked, “Is that a Michael Johnson song y’all playing?” I admitted it was. She got this strange look on her face and continued.
“Michael Johnson was my husband’s best friend. Michael died last year. They were very close and he’s taking it really hard. I can’t wait to tell him. He’s going to be so happy someone is listening and playing Michael’s songs!”
I shared with her how I had only recently stumbled on the songs—some of my all-time favorites— and had been playing them constantly the last couple weeks. Hilary was more than willing to testify on my behalf.
She wandered back to her section of the bar. We all agreed, ‘that was pretty interesting.’
As we were leaving about a half hour later, she hurried over to cut us off at the exit. She had this huge smile on her face and her eyes were like saucers.
“I just want to thank you again for playing Michael’s songs. You have no idea how much this means to me and my husband. God bless you.”
She grabbed my hand with both of hers and squeezed them hard. I got goosebumps. That was when it occurred to me something bigger might be going on. Her reaction was so powerful; her gratitude sincere and immense. Why did I rediscover those tunes only two weeks ago? Why did I decide at that moment, in that place, to pull out my phone and play those songs loud enough so she could hear them? What are the chances the wife of one of Michael Johnson’s best friends would be in that hotel bar at that precise time?
Once we got back to our room, I jotted down some notes of what had just happened. I had a big smile on my face.
There are some things that can’t be explained; only enjoyed.
And That’s That.
I did a little research on Michael Johnson. He was born in Colorado in 1944 and started playing the guitar at age 13. He studied with the renowned classical guitarist Andres Segovia in Spain. In the late 1960s, he honed his skills with the folk group The Chad Mitchell Trio and, together with fellow Colorado bandmate John Denver, co-wrote several of their songs. He went solo in the early 1970s and came to Nashville to develop his signature voice and style. He recorded Bluer Than Blue written by Randy Goodrum in 1978 for his first top 40 hit. That’s That, written by Hugh Prestwood, was also recorded in Nashville and released in 1988 on Johnson’s album of the same name.
Our daughter, Brittany, clearly recalls me singing and playing That’s That on my guitar, ad nauseum, soon after the song hit the charts.
Michael Johnson recorded over 19 albums, had nine top ten hits and toured and performed all over the country until shortly before his death in July of 2017 in his hometown of Minneapolis. You could say he died of a broken heart. He had a quadruple bypass in 2007 and battled emphysema and COPD for many years.
Here’s a link to a you tube video of one of their songs.