Wanda Johnson is crying. She’s already had to pause a couple of times to collect herself, but eventually she just decides to let the tears flow while she continues to speak. And it’s hard to blame her, because she’s talking about the loss of her mother, Hattie, a few months back, which came after a long illness.
Johnson, perhaps the best blues singer in the state, isn’t typically one for emotional displays, other than through her powerful vocals. She’s never been the cliched blues woman onstage, gnashing her teeth or falling to her knees in dramatic anguish. She prefers to let her voice do the emoting, either on classics by Etta James (her version of “At Last” is damn near as definitive as James’) or Sarah Vaughan. She’s capable of gospel-style passion and jazz-style control, but she’s not one to indulge in theatrics.
The tears come as Johnson speaks of a long hiatus she’d taken from music, after performing continuously since 1995. She didn’t stop in 2015 because of her mother’s illness, per se, but she feels like she might have had a feeling that something was coming.
“I’d been thinking for a while about stepping away from music for just a bit,” she says. “And then my Mom got sick after we got back from a European tour, and all of our lives changed. It became way more important to be one of Hattie’s nine daughters than to be ‘Wanda Johnson the singer.’ I don’t know if it was a premonition, but in any event, it happened a few months after I’d told the band I wanted to step away. I ended up living at a nursing facility with her, and then she suddenly passed away three months ago.”
“So a lot has been going on,” she adds — an extreme understatement.
Johnson began singing again recently, and she’s found it therapeutic in terms of dealing with the loss of her mother. But then again, it’s always been a release for her. “In some ways it really does feel cathartic,” she says. “I always knew it was a medicine for me. It’s been that way all of my life.”
Despite that little bit of healing she’s been able to find onstage, Johnson isn’t sure if she wants to sing full-time again. “I’ve only played a few times since my mom passed away, and I still don’t know how deep into it I want to get,” she says. “Singing brings me joy, but I’m still telling everybody when they ask if I want to dive full on into it again that I can’t say yes or no. I’m just truly in this place where I have to take it as it comes.”
Given her role models (and her talent), however, it’s difficult to believe that she won’t persevere. When it comes to influences, she cites two of the strongest female performers in the history of modern music, and one of them is a bit surprising.
“The people who always come to mind are Tina Turner and Dolly Parton,” she says. “Even when I first started singing professionally all those years ago, I was drawn to Tina because of how she has gone through so much adversity, but with so much grace and self-respect. Is she a crazy powerful singer? Yeah! I think that everybody knows that. But to me, she’s very much like a phoenix, and I like that, having gone through some pretty adverse things myself and being determined to come out on top even when I have to battle.”
As for Parton, Johnson’s love for her comes from a more personal place, even if she admires the country music legend and Turner for similar reasons.
“Every Saturday afternoon, my sisters and I would watch the Porter Wagoner show,” she says. “That’s where I first heard Dolly. She seemed so grounded. It’s something I noticed about her even when I was a little girl. Very talented, obviously, but very grounded. I think that’s one of the reasons she’s had staying power in the music industry. She never forgot where she came from.”
Perhaps those two diverse women have contributed somewhat to the stylistic range Johnson displays. She’s steeped in the blues, but it’s more a part of her than what she does entirely.
“People have perceptions of what blues is supposed to sound like or look like,” she says. “It’s an almost puritanical perspective. A song can be blues all day long, even if it doesn’t sound like KoKo Taylor or Muddy Waters or Stevie Ray Vaughan. It’s still blues.”
Blues or not, whether it’s a cover or an original, Johnson simply wants to connect with her audience. “I just want to be able to sing something that brings you joy or moves you to tears,” she says. “I consider myself to be a singer first, not a songwriter first. I stopped trying to understand it a long time ago. I just decided that that’s why God put me here: to sing.”