The title song of Carolyn Dawn Johnson's second CD underscores the tough truth that a dress rehearsal is exactly what life isn't that what we have instead is a perpetually brand-new moment that you have a single chance to make memorable.
That is Johnson's philosophy, and her new collection illustrates it stunningly. In a genre whose history is littered with disappointing second albums by promising singer-songwriters overwhelmed by the demands of stardom, Johnson has bested her acclaimed first effort by a mile.
From the slightly bluegrassy first single "Simple Life" and the wildly joyous "Head Over High Heels" and "My Little Secret" to the emotional message songs "We Talked" and "I'll Let You Go" and the tradition-edged "Die of a Broken Heart," Johnson displays her proliferating singing and writing skills with a power that transcends that of her widely-praised debut album, Room with a View. And these titles are barely half of the notables among a group of songs written from eight years ago to virtually yesterday. The intense "Squeezin' the Love Outta You" and the plaintive "Just Another Plane" are from Johnson's early days in Nashville, while the sublime "Life as We Know It" (recorded with Amy Grant) and the heady "He's Mine" are lyrical snapshots of Johnson's life with husband Matt Fisher, whom she married in the spring of 2003. New also is "God Doesn't Make Mistakes," an introspective personal examination that is transferable, and inspirational, to anyone.
"I think it's a big growth from Room with a View," Johnson says. "The sound is a notch up, too. While the first record is a lot more searching and hoping, with maybe more sadness, this one is introspective in a different way, yet very joyful. And I think I've learned more in the studio. Dann (Huff) probably brought some things out of me that I didn't quite know I had, but he believed I did."
Huff a power-sound specialist who has worked in studios with such varied female giants as Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Donna Summer and Reba McEntire took over as Johnson's co-producer when her first one, Paul Worley, became an executive at a competing label. But Huff and Johnson were hardly strangers.
"I'm a huge fan of his guitar playing, and he played on my first record," Johnson recalls. "And then he would just randomly call me out of the blue for no gain on his part, because I was working with Paul then. Dann was like, 'I saw your picture at Tower Records I'm so proud of you, girl.' Or 'I just saw the "Complicated" video, and that is a great song.' Or 'My daughter can't believe I played on that.' I think I got four calls from him like that over the course of maybe a year and a half or two years. He genuinely was a supporter of me and my music.
And he's such a genius musician in the studio. In my head, I hear melodies and stuff, too, and sometimes I'll sing 'em to a musician and say, 'Can you try playing this?' I'm always wondering how far I can go, but if I hear something, I want them to try it. And Dann was totally open to that. He never made me feel like my ideas were unimportant. I'd sing little things, and he'd take it and do it, then put an extra flair of his own stuff on it. So it was the right choice, going to him. Paul had talked with me before about maybe doing a few tracks with Dann, anyway. So it worked out."
As suggested by Johnson's pro-activism in the studio, Huff had a lot to work with. For at least a half-dozen years in Nashville, Johnson has been artistically on fire. In addition to penning songs for a long list of other people, including Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, Pam Tillis, Jo Dee Messina, Chely Wright, Mindy McCready, Lila McCann, Linda Davis and SHeDAISY, Johnson wrote every song on her initial CD and all but one on the new album.
The exception, the hit single, "Simple Life," is her only concession to the demands of a career that has already made her the 2000 Music Row Magazine Breakthrough Songwriter of the Year and propelled her to an amazing eight Canadian Country Music Awards, including CCMA honors as the 2001 and 2002 Female Artist of the Year. 2002 brought more accolades, both stateside and in Canada, as her homeland honored her with her first Juno Award (the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy), while the Academy of Country Music named her Top New Female Vocalist. The excitement continued into 2003's American Music Awards when she became Favorite New Artist Country. In 2003, she also became a celebrity ambassador for the Children's Miracle Network.
Johnson's energy is restless and electric, and it had to be to bring her many skills to the attention of country music's insiders. Born closer to the Arctic Circle than to Nashville, she looks back on 60-hour drives to Tennessee from her native Canada, where she was born six hours north of Edmonton, Alberta, and raised on a farm where her family grew much of its own food. Her grandfather was a minister, her father a farmer and operator of a seed-cleaning business, and her mother the supervisor of a home for senior citizens.
Real-life struggles and joys permeate both her past and the music that has impressed Nashville music executives since almost the day she arrived in town. Her first school in little Deadwood, Alberta, had three grades in each classroom, her first piano teacher was the wife of her minister, and her parents were so musically supportive that they provided her and her siblings with plenty of cassettes, albums, and instruments and took them long distances to attend concerts by stars Johnny Cash, Charley Pride and Amy Grant. When she moved on to high school in a larger town, she encountered instructors who seemed less sensitive and music-loving, and put her off her dream for a while, making what she termed "a stain in my heart." Because of that and her good grades, she concentrated on science in college, but dabbled at her first love on the side.
She listened to all sorts of music obsessively and revered a wide array of musical mentors. These ranged from the Beach Boys, ABBA and Madonna to a profusion of Nashville-oriented stars: such men as Randy Travis, Dwight Yoakam and Marty Stuart, but especially females Reba McEntire, Patty Loveless, Martina McBride, Pam Tillis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Trisha Yearwood, Suzy Bogguss and Deborah Allen. Often, she found that her favorite songs on these stars' CDs were written by singer-composer Matraca Berg, who "just always had neat angles on things." Berg "immediately became the girl I wanted to be like," Johnson remembers, and when she reached Nashville, she aimed for and got herself signed to a contract with Berg's music publisher, Pat Higdon of Patrick Joseph Music.
"I took off pretty fast," she recalls. "It was like I was obsessed with writing songs. I wrote all the time, so much that something had to happen, and my publishers were very encouraging. They really got my music out there, and it just started to happen. I had a very small wage, but it was great for me because I was used to waitressing and cleaning houses and all that kind of stuff."
Her songs turned the heads of insiders. Producer Paul Worley started coming to the sessions at which she demoed material to pitch to other singers. In 1999, around the time she was signed to her recording contract, two very important events occurred: her "Single White Female" became a #1 hit for Chely Wright, and Worley-associated star Martina McBride invited Johnson to sing background for her on the road.
"She said, 'And you play guitar, right?' I said, 'Yeah.' I wasn't very good. It was such a put-on-the-spot thing for me. I went home and practiced my butt off. Martina is pretty particular, and for her to ask me to come out like that was a big leap of faith that she trusted me. I was not gonna let her down. I ended up staying with her for about a year off and on, and I learned a lot. I had never played and sung in that kind of situation before."
By the summer of 2001, Johnson's solo career had begun to take flight as she teamed with McBride, Reba McEntire, Sara Evans and Jamie O'Neal for "The Girls' Night Out Tour." Joining the legendary Merle Haggard for a series of shows later that year, high-profile tours continued into 2002 with superstars Alan Jackson and Kenny Chesney. In 2003, Johnson embarked on her first co-headlining tour (with Keith Urban) while continuing work on Dress Rehearsal.
Johnson's first CD, Room with a View, was the highest debuting album by a new artist in Arista Nashville history since the inception of SoundScan. It included the Top 10 singles "I Don't Want You to Go" and "Complicated," as well as the emotional title song, which dealt with the death of one of Johnson's brothers.
Courage is one of this Canadian's most immediately noticeable traits. Having endured family tragedy and some of the reverses that can happen in the tenuous life of a songwriter, she has always appeared unfazed. An admiring record company executive claims Johnson fears nothing.
She thinks about that.
"I remember my manager asking at the beginning, after I got my record deal, 'Is there anything you're afraid of?'" she says. "I said, 'I don't think so, not really.' Then I thought, 'I'm afraid of disappointing my parents, of doing something in this career to make them not proud and change our relationship.' My parents are very sweet, good people."
She then thinks of another fear and puts her finger on what makes her work both commercial and deeply personal.
"I'm afraid," she adds, "of not being honest following in the journey of my music."