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Ron Johnson reflects on concert promotion legacy as his 80th act approaches

Ron Johnson has brought dozens of concerts to the Bemidji area since 1982. Mannheim Steamroller's performance on Tuesday, Nov. 23, will be the 80th for Johnson.

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Ron Johnson will represent Lakeland PBS for his 80th concert in the Bemidji area on Tuesday, Nov. 23, when Mannheim Steamroller performs at the Sanford Center. The concert was purchased, produced and promoted by an independent promoter in partnership with Lakeland PBS and Johnson. (Dennis Doeden / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- The concert was starting, but the headliner was still on an airplane heading for the Bemidji airport.

The John Glas Fieldhouse was filled to capacity with country music fans waiting for Johnny Cash to Walk the Line. The concert promoter was nervous as the Carter Family was wrapping up its set as the opener to the legendary Man in Black.

“Here's how nerve-wracking it can be,” explained Ron Johnson, who has promoted dozens of concerts here since 1982. “The Johnny Cash concert is starting in Bemidji, and Johnny's not even in the state. He's still flying in. I'm just a nervous wreck.”

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Howard Bellamy, left, and Ron Johnson visit with members of The Forester Sisters following their second concert in Bemidji on April 30, 1988, at the John Glas Fieldhouse. (Contributed / Ron Johnson)

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Johnson, who has served on the Bemidji City Council since 2000, is also the Design/Promotion Manager for Lakeland PBS television. He has produced 47 concerts on behalf of the station and another 32 on his own through his North Country Concerts enterprise. Johnson’s 80th concert will be on Tuesday, Nov. 23, when Mannheim Steamroller performs at the Sanford Center.

He can share plenty of interesting stories, including the one about Johnny Cash and the concert that was literally up in the air.

The year was 1986. Cash was supposed to do a Bemidji concert two years earlier, but he canceled and Johnson had to scramble for a replacement. He was able to sign T.G. Sheppard and “Whispering” Bill Anderson.

The next year, promoter Hap Peebles called Johnson.

“Hap said Johnny felt bad about not honoring that (earlier commitment), and so he's going to come to town," Johnson recounted. "This is like getting Garth Brooks now. I mean (Cash) probably still would be as big a concert as you could get if he was alive right now. But back then that was a big name, and he was coming to Bemidji.”

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These are posters from some of the 1980s concerts brought to Bemidji by Ron Johnson. Note the $14 ticket price for a 1986 Johnny Cash concert. (Contributed / Ron Johnson)

Johnson booked the concert in late fall 1985 and came up with a promotion: 'Let's give Cash for Christmas.”

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“I sold a ton of presale, so before we went public I was already in the black,” said Johnson, who had started doing his own shows the year before. “Sold the place out, I think 3,300 seats.”

Then about three weeks before the concert date, Cash’s manager called and asked if they could change the date. It seems Johnny was booked to perform out East at a Billy Graham Crusade and would have trouble getting to Bemidji on time.

“I told him there's a clause in the contract and you can buy it out,” Johnson said. “But I would have lost a lot of money. I was adamant about it. Finally, I went to Hap and said, ‘You figure it out.’ because I bought the act through him. It was lined up to be Johnny Cash and June Carter. So he said, ‘I'm going to send up the Carter Family with his band and they're going to do an opening set, so that will buy me some time.’”

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Two of the harmonicas Johnny Cash played on "Orange Blossom Special" during his 1986 Bemidji concert are still in Ron Johnson's possession. Ron's late father caught both harps from his front-row seat. (Dennis Doeden / Bemidji Pioneer)

While the Carters were on stage, Johnson was summoned to the box office to deal with an issue. Still unsure of Cash’s arrival, he headed back down to the main arena as the Carters were wrapping up.

“And then a guy touched me on the shoulder,” Johnson said. “It was Johnny Cash. He had arrived while I was upstairs. And he goes, 'Look at that crowd. I would never let that crowd down.' He had his guitar slung over his back like he always did. He walked out on stage, said 'Hello, I'm Johnny Cash,' and put on probably the best show this town has ever seen. I've done a lot of fun ones, but that was something, even though it was nerve-wracking.”

Most concerts have been easier on the promoter’s nerves. When Loretta Lynn came here in 1987, her megahit “Coal Miner’s Daughter” had just come out. When Sawyer Brown and Billy Dean played in the old Bemidji High School auditorium in 1992, they had the No. 1 and 3 country hits that week: Sawyer Brown’s “Some Girls Do” and Dean’s “If There Hadn’t Been You.”

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Loretta Lynn is pictured signing autographs with her daughter, Cissie, on stage at the John Glas Fieldhouse in 1987. Lynn performed one sold-out show and then signed autographs for over an hour. Promoter Ron Johnson said about one-third of the 3,300 fans who attended the concert waited in line to meet the "Coal Miner's Daughter." (Contributed / Ron Johnson)

The late Michael Johnson was booked 10 times and Johnson brought the Statler Brothers to town three times.

From that first concert in 1982 featuring Mel Tillis through Tuesday’s Mannheim Steamroller performance, Ron Johnson has built quite a legacy.

Even the one concert that was up in the air.

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Tommy Smothers signs promoter Ron Johnson's shirt at a 2007 Smothers Brothers concert at the Bemidji High School Auditorium. (Contributed / Ron Johnson)

Related Topics: MUSICBEMIDJI NEWSLETTER
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