Prudence Johnson


Prudence Johnson's silky voice has taken her from the Midwest to the Middle East, honky-tonks to Carnegie Hall, theater stages to the silver screen — appearing in Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It and in Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion. But be it concert hall or tiny jazz club, Prudence is the perfect complement. As one music critic put it, "[There's] not a genre she hasn't interpreted with her ducky, sensual alto voice and terminally good taste."

So, how does one go from a small town like Moose Lake, MN, to the world stage? Were you raised in a musical family?
My father has a beautiful voice and loves to sing. For decades, he was the go-to guy in our area for weddings and funerals. Singing together was something we always did; until a certain age, I thought all families did. People ask me how to learn to hear harmony parts. Ummm … your dad teaches you when you’re four?
I wouldn’t say I had ambition, so much as a certainty that that’s what I was meant to do, and I just put one foot in front of the other. My family of course thought I was nuts, especially since I was a young mother trying to make a living as a freelance musician. I believe it was my appearances on the Prairie Home show in the early ’80s ( it was nationally broadcast by then) that changed their minds.

'Remember Me' with Prudence & Garrison

You’ve released more than a dozen albums, collaborated on many more, written and performed in plays, performed in several feature films, released several multimedia projects combining music and history. With all the time at home due to the pandemic, are there any new projects on the horizon?
I was very busy during the darkest days of the pandemic working at an independent bookstore (Birchbark Books) in Minneapolis. I love the world of books and got a part-time job there in 2008, mostly to support my book habit. But over the years, my commitment deepened and I took on a lot of duties there while maintaining a schedule creating new shows, recording, and performing. To everyone’s surprise, when we closed our doors to the public in spring 2020, the store got much busier than ever before. So I wasn’t really isolated and I had very little downtime. I left Birchbark in the end of May after 12 1/2 years and had a great summer, and I’m just now really giving some thought to what’s next. I LOVE being in the studio but I realize I don’t recognize the landscape anymore — the business of making and releasing recordings has changed so fundamentally. Working with Garrison and with Robin and Linda, as the next incarnation of the Hopeful Gospel Quartet, is sort of a “new old” project that I’m really looking forward to.

You have performed on A Prairie Home Companion, toured with the show as part of the Rhubarb tour, been featured in the movie, toured with Garrison . . . do you have any favorite memories? 

Oh! so many. I thought of the Beatles standing in the very same spot on the Hollywood Bowl stage. My granddaughter celebrating her ninth birthday with me on the APHC cruise of the Norwegian fjords. (She's a 23 yr old Registered Nurse now and has great memories of that time) Feeling Leonard Bernstein's spirit at Tanglewood. Red Maddock's glorious smile. I could go on and on.

Do you have a favorite guest musician you've had the opportunity to meet or perform with on the show?
Odetta! She looked right into my soul! Billy Collins and I sang a duet or two--Billy if you're reading this, my crush has never faded. Linda Ronstadt saw I was facing a lonely night of room service and tv after the show and whisked me off to dinner with her friends. What a sweetheart. Back before there were actual actors doing the scripts, Garrison wrote a sketch for Leo Kottke, Chet Atkins and me. I'm still amazed when I think about it.
Prudence talks about the Department of Folk Songs, Sings and takes a few more questions

On the show, you took over as host of the Department of Folk Song for a period of time. . . .did you choose all the songs to feature or do you have a favorite song that you discovered as part of the Department of Folk Song?
I did a lot of research, brought home armloads of books from the library. I discovered a lot of songs from different centuries about women in various kinds of distress which led to projects with the MN Sinfonia as well as a production called Fearless and Fallen, with guitarist Dean Magraw and cellist Michelle Kinney.
As we covered in our feature on the Hopeful Gospel Quartet, you stepped in as the fourth voice for the A Prairie Home Companion film directed by Robert Altman.   Any favorite memories you care to share about the making of the film?

It was so much fun being on set of the movie; I pretended to be a smoker so I could bum cigarettes from Kevin Kline and hang out with him. Meryl Streep & Lily Tomlin--truly excellent & sweet human beings. The day I sang in the quartet was totally spontaneous. Jearlyn Steele wasn't able to be on set that day, I was, and they wanted to shoot that song, so I learned!

We had just been on tour for about 3 weeks; how Garrison, Richie and the whole band and crew slipped right into that movie schedule I don't know--I was exhausted. I was asked to costume myself so I chose a suit I had worn sometimes on the tour. After a few 10 hour days in it, I dearly wished I'd chosen something more comfortable. (ok, not so much a favorite memory as a regret)

'Let Your Light Shine On Me' from the A Prairie Home Companion film >>>

You will be partnering up with Garrison and Robin & Linda Williams and Dan Chouinard for a few Hopeful Gospel Quartet dates as well as performing several shows with Garrison . . . do you have a favorite duet to sing with Garrison?
I do! We sing one lately by Ann Reed called If You Were Mine, and one I hope we revive someday is If I Needed You by Townes Van Zandt. Both are sweet wistful love songs and sort of hypnotic to sing. The four voices together is a whole different thing; it's a powerful sound and it's going to be a lot of fun. And any time I spend making music with Dan is happy time.
'Lullaby for Lesha' from Little Dreamer

Since you are a teacher, any prescient advice for someone who wants to pursue a career in music?

Not all jobs require the integration of physical skills, intellect and the heart--some only require one of those--so it's a rare gift to make one's living doing something so spiritually gratifying. Offer your music with love and it will have an impact, and no matter how you weather the ups and downs of the music "business," it will feed your soul.

As a singer, I think of myself foremost as a storyteller, and I encourage young singers, when they are tempted to get frilly and fancy, to concentrate on telling the story.

'Early' with Prudence & Garrison

How can fans best keep up with your latest projects or where you will be appearing?
I may possibly be the world's worst self-promoter, but I am in the process of designing a new website (the current one has been terribly neglected. If you looked at it, you'd probably think I'd died!) But I do usually post notices of performances on facebook. Check in with in a month or so--I have music and projects I'd love to share with you all.

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