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Hit Country Writer/Artist Carolyn Dawn Johnson Talks About Her Second Album, Dress Rehearsal

By Jayne Moore
Carolyn Dawn Johnson
Carolyn Dawn Johnson

For singer/songwriter Carolyn Dawn Johnson, who has worked with top country artists such as Martina McBride, Reba McIntyre, Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney and Amy Grant, life can't get much better. She has scored numerous hits and awards in both the U.S. and Canada and is anticipating the release of her second album, Dress Rehearsal, on Arista Nashville Records.

In a recent interview, Johnson discusses her transition from a girl growing up in northern Alberta, Canada to one of country music's most sought-after songwriters and performers.

Johnson's love for music was ignited as a child singing in her hometown church in Deadwood, Alberta. 'We were a church-going family and we loved singing the old gospel songs,' Johnson said. 'We also listened to a lot of country music. The first concert I attended was Charley Pride; the second was Johnny Cash.' She also listened to the Top 40 music of the time. 'I think the first album I ever owned was by a group called ABBA. I learned all their harmony parts and everything about them. I was grateful to my mom for letting me stay up late when they were on TV.'

Although she began to play the piano at age five, Johnson said she didn't really get serious about songwriting until after high school. 'I taught myself to play guitar when I was around 20, but I didn't get really good until I moved to Nashville when I was 24 or 25 years old. When I got to Nashville, I didn't have a choice but to play guitar for myself or pay someone, and I really didn't have the money for that.'

Before taking the plunge into the Nashville music scene, Johnson made an attempt at college. 'I felt like I was spinning my wheels at school, and by the second year I realized all I wanted to do was music.' She moved to Vancouver, where she found a more active music community. 'But when I realized I was starting at the bottom of the ladder wherever I was, I decided, 'why not start at the bottom of the ladder in Nashville?''

In 1994, Johnson took her initial steps toward finding her niche in country music. She traveled to Nashville to attend songwriting workshops and writer's night events, where she received some initial positive feedback. By 1997, Johnson was ready to relocate.

Supporting herself with a series of jobs, Johnson found time to continue writing. 'I was just so excited to be in this town- to write, and get out and listen to other writers. It was very inspiring to feel that energy. I would step back and think about where I am in this game. Being in Nashville raises the bar, and if you want to play the game, you'd better get there.'

Carolyn Dawn Johnson
Carolyn Dawn Johnson

Johnson described her signing with Arista Nashville as a natural progression. Publisher Pat Higdon of Patrick Joseph Music (now with Universal) saw something special in her combination of writing and performing. 'My voice was going through the door on my demos and eventually the record companies started to notice. When I sat down with my publisher, we sat goals for each year, and I was not going to go for a record deal until I got certain goals accomplished, because it's a lot harder for a recording artist to go back and get a songwriting deal.' By 1999, Johnson had her record deal.

Also in 1999, Johnson had the opportunity to work with Martina McBride. 'A producer I was working with (Paul Worley) was also working with Martina and he called me to do background vocals on her record, so I sang on her record and then she said, 'hey, do you want to come out on the road with me?'' Although Johnson was working on her own album, she found time to perform onstage with McBride. 'I ended up staying with her for over a year because it was so much fun. We really enjoyed working together.'

As a songwriter, Johnson, along with co-writer Shaye Smith, penned 'Single White Female,' for artist Chely Wright. The song went to #1, a first for both Wright and Johnson. Jo Dee Messina's top five smash, 'Downtime' became another triumph. In addition, such Nashville notables as Pam Tillis, SheDaisy and Kathy Mattea have recorded Johnson's songs. Music Row Magazine named Johnson 'Breakthrough Songwriter of the Year' for 2000.

Johnson's own debut album, Room With a View featured guest performances from McBride, Kim Carnes, Marty Stuart and Matraca Berg, and opened at #8 on Billboard's Top Country Albums. 'Complicated,' a single from the album, charted at #5 in the U.S. and went to #1 in Canada, along with another song titled 'Georgia.'

The year 2001 was bittersweet for Johnson. The night before the Sept. 11 attacks, she celebrated a record 10 nominations, resulting in (another record) five awards from the Canadian Country Music Awards. 'It was a couple of months before I could let myself be happy about it,' she said.

That same year, Johnson was named top new female vocalist by the Academy of Country Music. She described winning the award as a surreal experience. 'You go up there and try to remember all the people in your life. The first thing I could think of was my family because that's where it all began.'

Also in 2001, Johnson accompanied Reba McIntyre and guests on the 'Girl's Night Out' tour. She continued her touring schedule in 2002 opening for Alan Jackson and Kenny Chesney before returning to the studio to work on her next album.

Johnson's second album is slated for release later this year. 'I'm not sure what the name (of the album) will be,' she said, 'but I'm hoping it'll be called Dress Rehearsal.' The first single from the album, 'Simple Life,' will be released this month. She admits that her marriage earlier this year may have led to more 'happy love stuff' on the new album. 'That's the joy of what we do is to write songs based on the reality that we've lived somewhere down the line.'

For aspiring songwriters and artists, Johnson said, 'You don't have to move to Nashville to become successful, but it helps a lot. If you don't live there, you need to spend a lot of time there. You'll never know what you're up against if you don't. It's a very competitive business and you have to make great songs. If I'm knocking down the door Monday through Friday because I live there and someone else is showing up once every six months, Who's gonna win? It's like the law of numbers. You have to be there to win. But sometimes a great song sneaks through, and there's always a great story behind that.

Jayne Moore is a freelance music/entertainment journalist. She has launched a new service, writing bios, articles and press releases. Moore can be contacted at musicgerm@hotmail.com. You can also visit her website: www.musicgerm.com.