Granbury — Any North Texas theatergoer will tell you that while Julie Johnson is a versatile actress, as her fantastic turn as Fraulein Schneider in the Dallas Theater Center's 2011 production of Cabaret will attest. She's been in the national tour of Memphis and earned a Drama Desk nomination for the off-Broadway premiere of the musical Das Barbecü. But there's a role she's proabably best known for: legendary American vocalist Patsy Cline.
Johnson has played Cline numerous times in both of the musical about Patsy, Always...Patsy Cline and A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline. She's currently in a revival of Closer Walk, running at the Granbury Opera House—a venue that knows Johnson's Cline well—to be followed up in February at Lyric Stage in Irving. More dates on a small tour could be added.
Closer Walk traces Cline's rise from her hometown in Winchester, Va., to the Grand Ole Opry, Las Vegas and Carnegie Hall. Patsy Cline defined the term "crossover hit" by dominating country, blues, pop and gospel charts simultaneously in the 1950s and early ‘60s. Featuring 21 of Patsy’s greatest hits, the musical tribute includes "Walkin' After Midnight," "Sweet Dreams," "I Fall to Pieces," "Crazy," "She’s Got You," "Seven Lonely Days" and the title song, "A Closer Walk with Thee."
We chatted with Johnson about her latest turn as the immortal singer.
TheaterJones: How many times have you played Patsy in each musical about her, A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline and Always...Patsy Cline?
Julie Johnson: Fifteen productions of both shows combined! At around 22 songs in each show, average of six shows per week, an average four-week run...that's a lot of “sangin’”!
How did this production come together?
Steve Barcus and I had been trying to self-produce a tour after two productions in Richmond, Va., one in Suffolk, and one in Waco. The problem we had was a lack of knowledge about booking the medium-sized markets that have great arts centers with theaters and audiences we wanted to reach. My best friend from high school and her husband have been entertainment producers for years and had the missing puzzle piece to launch this project. So now we are working with Mark Bell Productions with the blessings of Marquis Entertainment, the licensors of A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline, we are moving forward. This production gives us the opportunity to get the show ready to travel. And, of course Granbury has always been a welcoming home to A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline.
In all these years of you playing Patsy, how has your knowledge of her deepened, and how has your voice and style changed, as voices do over time?
I truthfully feel and learn something different with each production. Of course, the audience has a lot to do with that. I have never performed this show anywhere and received anything but the most energetic and enthusiastic responses. The show evokes every emotion that Patsy's music and voice evoke when you listen to her. It tells her life story chronologically thru a radio D.J.’s (Steve Barcus) on-air tribute. I began this rehearsal period with a sinus infection, which was making the vocal gymnastics that Patsy performed so beautifully, difficult for me. So I had a moment of “uh-oh!” But in three days, the muscle memory in my vocal chords overcame the congestion, and all the vocal stylings felt natural again.
Tell us about your band.
This band is a-maz-ing! Kevin Bailey, who is a regular member of Charlie Pride's band, is on guitar and banjo. Jerry Matheny plays lead guitar. Kerry Huckaba plays upright and electric bass. Garrett Roper plays drums. And Steve Barcus not only plays five characters in the show, he also plays piano! Many of these guys toured for years with LeAnn Rimes and blessed me by playing on both of my CDs! They are the real deal!
Can we expect anything different about this production? Like, are any arrangements different?
The licensing of this show and the permission from the Patsy Cline Estate are rightfully insistent that you stay true to the music she recorded. Plus, who would possibly think they could improve a Patsy Cline song? Not me!!! I stay as true as possible to the well-documented memory of Patsy Cline.
Do you think any woman in country music, let's say since the 1990s, comes close to her legacy?
Of course, this is my opinion, and my opinion and $4.95 will get you a Starbucks espresso, but I truly think Reba McEntire stands alone since the days of Patsy, Loretta and Dolly. Alison Krauss is another unique and timeless recording artist. But there's only one Patsy Cline.
Why is she so important to American music?
There are several reasons Patsy Cline is so important in American music. Though Kitty Wells blazed the "girl-singer-in-a-man's-world" trail, Patsy's voice had a much wider appeal, going beyond the more narrow, country and western radio market. Her producer, Owen Bradley, put strings, not fiddles, in her instrumentations and brought her to the attention of the whole country with careful song selection. And, of course, she was taken tragically before she reached her full potential as an artist. The lament and the sense of loss gives people a longing to hear her and see portrayals of her that perhaps wouldn't be as strong if we had enjoyed her talents well into her 70's as we have with Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, two more country legends.