Every #1 Country Single of the Eighties: Michael Johnson, “The Moon is Still Over Her Shoulder”

“The Moon is Still Over Her Shoulder”

Michael Johnson

Written by Hugh Prestwood


#1 (1 week)

May 9, 1987

One of the things that I love the most about country music from this era is that no matter what an artist does before or after, they can still deliver a classic record when paired with the right song.

I was not a big fan of “Give Me Wings,” the first of two No. 1 singles from Michael Johnson.  But I still love “The Moon is Still Over Her Shoulder,” a gorgeous Hugh Prestwood song that leans into the strengths of Johnson as a singer.

He’s got that singer-songwriter sound that lit up AM radio in the seventies, and he understands that as a singer, you don’t get in the way of a great song. Your job is to let it shine, even if that means being restrained at the mic.

It works wonders for this beautiful ballad, which is poetic and evocative.  Is our protagonist looking at the photo of his wife when she was seventeen for pure nostalgia, as they empty nest together? Or did he lose her many years ago, and she’s frozen in time, even as their children are now wed and out of the house? Maybe she just went away, and left him with the kids to raise on his own. Or maybe he went away, and though his kids stay in touch, the only way he can interact with his ex-wife is to longingly stare at a photo of her from the good old days.

Hugh Prestwood kept this song close to his chest, writing it in 1985 and waiting for it to be paired with the right singer.  He is on the record for which of the above scenarios he thinking of when he wrote it, but I won’t spoil that here.  As Tori Amos once said, “I always believe the songs have relationships with people. Once they leave me and go into the world it’s none of my business what happens.”

There’s a reading of this song that I prefer over Prestwood’s own account, and I’m going to hold on to it.  But whatever interpretation you choose, this is one of the most beautifully written songs of the year.  Which is pretty much true whenever Prestwood gets a cut in a given year.

“The Moon is Still Over Her Shoulder” gets an A.

Every No. 1 Single of the Eighties

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  1. While I honestly don’t ever recall hearing this song on country radio, I remember it from seeing Michael Johnson perform at the Minnesota State Fair sometime in the early 90s. It’s extremely endearing and has that soothing 70s soft rock feel you describe. Johnson didn’t so much change his style from a decade earlier as country radio adopted him with his existing style. Of course it’s not the first time something like that has happened. The Eagles and Kelly Clarkson had a run in the 2000s where some of their songs were embraced as country crossovers, albeit coming up far short of #1 as Johnson did. I never picked up on any ambiguity in the lyrics of “Moon”. Always just figured they were living happily ever after and reflecting, but the added layer of mystery you point out makes the song that much more intriguing.

    Minnesota has produced three pretty big names tied to country #1s with Lynn Anderson, Paulette Carlson, and Michael Johnson. It’s interesting though that there hasn’t been a significant country star from Minnesota in the last 30 years.

    Grade: B+

  2. @MarkMinnesota, celebrating a Michael Johnson hit is perfect opportunity to formally welcome another voice from the Land of 10,000 Lakes to the comment section.

    I am catching up on my posts after a technical glitch.

    If I remember correctly from an earlier post, you are from Austin, in the southland of Minnesota, home of the Spam museum and The Gear Daddies!

    I love how two 70’s folkies – Dan Seals and Michael Johnson – kept chasing one another up and down the country charts for a hot minute in the late ’80s.

    The music is still in the air for me with this one.

    The opening couplet is so inviting and seductive. Add the delicate instrumentation and Johnson’s gentle interpretation of the lyrics and it is no wonder this topped the charts. Hugh Prestwood’s lyrics are burnished to a warm smooth glow by the unobtrusive and reverent care with which Johnson handles them. It’s an inescapably beautiful performance, from start to finish. This song is a true testament to the power of imagination and memory.

    This song never gets one minute older to my ears and I will still go to bat for the entire “Wings” album as being an unexpected gem from this era.

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