A Guitar and a Full Tank of Gas
How Carolyn Dawn Johnson hit the road for Nashville and returned a country star
Article by Helen Metella
Photography by Sandy Nicholson
Elm Street Magazine / Holiday 2001


"Who is that?" whispers the female security guard backstage at Calgary's Saddledome hockey arena. I've arrived for rehearsals of the Canadian Country Music Association Awards show on a Sunday morning in early September, inside a claque of managers and marketers trailing one of the key performers.

"Carolyn Dawn Johnson," I tell her. "She's nominated for the most awards tomorrow night." The guard looks intrigued, so I add that Johnson's 10 nods are more than anyone has ever received, including Shania Twain and Anne Murray. The guard sizes up Johnson, a petite 30-year-old blond of Norwegian heritage, casting the instant judgment that she looks "down-to-earth". Sure enough, in a summery skirt and black overcoat, her face aglow, the Alberta-born singer-songwriter is unpretentious and composed as she quietly greets everyone. It has been six years since Johnson struck out for Nashville, pitting her sturdy, small-town roots against the might of the American country music machine. At this event, the guard is among the few who do not know the name Carolyn Dawn Johnson, a Southern-sounding handle that's repeated with increasing frequency on country radio.

It was Johnson's songwriting that first grabbed the attention of the country crowd. She turns a terrific phrase and conjures delightful melodies. In 1999, "Single White Female," a song she co-wrote with Nashville songwriter Shaye Smith, took American singer Chely Wright to number one on the U.S. country charts. This feat was not lost on Arista Nashville - the recording giant signed Johnson directly to an American deal. Since then, more of her songs have been adopted by other A-list country artists, Pam Tillis, Kathy Mattea and Suzy Bogguss among them. But by May of this year, Johnson's own voice - a sweet lilt powering pop-inflected tunes - was all over the airwaves, too, as radio stations warmed to singles from her album, Room With a View.

Johnson can now lay claim to the awkward accolade that she was the first Canadian performer to top Canada's country music chart with two consecutive singles from a debut album. Country Music Television in Canada has certainly helped, keeping the videos for her hit songs - "Georgia" and "Complicated" - in constant rotation. By the tail end of Country Music Week, stalwarts such as Michelle Wright and Terri Clark are still fan favourites, but Johnson is the one to watch, the hot new presence with a CD approaching gold in Canada. The stardust is beginning to stick.

At a late lunch at her hotel following the rehearsal, Johnson is hungry, tired and disappointed that she won't get to meet her boyfriend, who works at Country Music Television in Nashville, at the airport. Yet she focuses intently on my questions. She credits her parents for her strong work ethic. Her father, John, toiled in a seed-cleaning plant and, with her mother, Loretta, ran the family's cattle and crop farm in Deadwood, Alta. The tiny hamlet in wheat-growing country 600 kilometres north of Edmonton is named after the legendary frontier city in South Dakota where Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are buried, but was a far less exciting version of the West. "We had a store that was closed, two little churches, a portable school and a post office," says Johnson, who remembers rural life fondly.

There were pigs to feed and a monstrous garden to weed but also memorable get-togethers at the family's home. Neighbours with guitars would drop by to warble tunes such as Porter Wagoner's "An Old Log Cabin For Sale" and Les Paul and Mary Ford's hit "Mockin'bird Hill." Johnson's parents nurtured her early affection for country music by exposing her to live shows. "The first concert my parents took me to in Grande Prairie was Charley Pride," she says. "I was about 7 or 8. My second concert was Johnny Cash and I think my third one was Amy Grant. My parents drove me all the way to Edmonton to see that."

Loretta Johnson, who plays piano by ear, took Carolyn, her older brother, Derwin, and younger brother, Greg, to piano lessons as each in turn reached the age of 5. Their pastor's wife, Evangeline Thiessan, was Johnson's music instructor and her first fan. "Even when I moved away, in Grade 9, she wanted me so badly to keep up with my piano that she would send me books and write me encouraging letters to keep going with my music," Johnson says.

By that time, the family was running a gas station in Westlock, Alta., a bustling agriculture-service town about 80 kilometres north to Edmonton. (The town of 5,000 is home to the Canadian Tractor Museum.) Johnson avidly attended concerts in the city: Randy Travis, George Strait, Highway 101. But it wasn't just country music that excited her. She was bowled over by the harmonies of Abba and Fleetwood Mac and the studio expertise of Michael Jackson. Johnson recorded herself singing harmony on the schoolgirl poetry she was setting to music at the piano. She chuckles, remembering how she would replay the tapes in her room and add the lead vocals - her primitive attempt at multitracking. No one ever heard these tapes, she says, aghast at the idea. "It was my diary, put to music."

She laughs sheepishly, suddenly making the connection: the songs on Room With a View are a grown-up's diary entries. The title track is about her brother Derwin, who got sick and died unexpectedly one Christmas Eve. Johnson refuses to elaborate and won't answer other questions that cut too close to her family's privacy. But her songs expose other sad history. "Masterpiece" concerns her aunt and uncle: he was dyslexic and considered different; she was the new girl in town who fell for him. The love affair the couple shared before they and their infant son died in a car accident so moved Johnson that she immortalized it, likening the relationship to a great work of art. Her homey lyrics place the listener right at the funeral: "Everybody said that they were so close to heaven that they didn't have far to go." Awfully revealing stuff for one so protective. Johnson allows that she included these songs on her album because she realized she had to. They were among her best work, and she could use nothing less for her first record.

During her teens, everyone knew Johnson as the girl who sang at school functions and weddings, who kept learning new instruments in the school band - flute, saxophone, clarinet. Yet when she entered Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., it was to prepare for studies in biology. She didn't believe she could make a living in music. "I had good grades and the logical thing was, 'Hey, you got good grades, why don't you go into sciences?' "

A year later, Johnson was in Edmonton, studying education and dating a musician in a country band. Occasionally, she'd jam with him on stage, and friends would remark that she'd missed her calling. By 20, Johnson also realized she preferred music to teaching. But she was repelled by the prospect of paying her dues as she regurgitated cover tunes in dingy nightclubs. When she moved back to Vancouver to find some way into the music business, she phoned her mother in Westlock. "I'm going big. I'm going for the big picture." That meant aiming the car for Nashville.

Printers Alley is a three-block district in downtown Nashville that's steeped in entertainment lore. It was once the centre of the city's publishing industry; then, during Prohibition, it spawned speakeasies. In the 1940s, stars such as Hank Williams and Chet Atkins headlined its clubs. These days the guidebooks sniff that it's a touristy enclave and recommend seeking fresh and invigorating country music elsewhere. But in the mid-1990s, Printers Alley was where Johnson caught her break. A songwriter named David Vincent Williams shared an acoustic set with Johnson, who played an Alanis Morissette tune and two original compositions. Williams wanted his friend Scott Siman to hear this conversational songwriter with the supple voice, who visited from Vancouver periodically to attend writing workshops and play open stages.

Siman is a former Sony Music Nashville executive who signed the Dixie Chicks; he has lived and breathed authentic country music all his life. His father hosted a TV variety show called Ozark Jubilee and later started a publishing company to represent heartland contry songwriters. Yet "only 10 or 15 times in my life has the hair on the back of my neck stood up like it did when I heard her." Siman was knocked out by the originality of Johnson's voices - the one she sings with and the one she commits to paper. "There's a really intangible line between a classic country song and a really corny song," he says. "She twists and turns it and gives it the right shpae." He signed on as her manager.

Achieving this important Nashville toehold took more than an inside connection. It helped that Johnson once had a boyfriend who sold Amway products. Johnson is close to finishing her hamburger when she dangles this intriguing morsel. Amway? I stare at her, wondering if there's a devotee of multi-level marketing wrapped in religious fervour hiding behind her low-key demeanour. It's the first truly unusual aspect of herself she's divulged. Johnson is wearing blue-tinted glasses, to give her eyes a break from her contacts, making it impossible to read her expression. If she's aware of how ingenuous this sounds, she doesn't show it. It was the positive-affirmation training Amway gave its salespeople so they could deal with repeated rejections that inspired her, Johnson explains.

So she sought out books on the methods. Not trendy New Age stuff but its mouldy, mid-20th-century foundations: You Can If You Think You Can, by the controversial preacher Norman Vincent Peale and How to Win Friends and Influence People, by the public speakin guru Dale Carnegie. "I suggest it to anybody," she says enthusiastically. "Those are amazing books. Any walk of life."

Johnson doesn't strike me as somebody who relies on saviours. She can't quite remember the faith of the churches she worshipped at as a child and now attends non-denominational services. In a dismissive tone, she notes that another motivational purchase of the period was a dud. The TV-advertised video on country music songwriting explained how Clint Black and Garth Brooks felt upon hearing their songs on the radio but failed to reveal how they wrote them in the first place. But it was the self-help books that spoke to her. Johnson began drawing up goal sheets. She wrote down her desires and the intermediate steps that might lead to achieving them. One such move was enrolling at the Columbia Academy in Vancouver to take courses in recording engineering. "I wanted to know, how do you get a record deal, how do you get your songs out?" Johnson explains. "And there was a portion of the course that was about the music business." Once she'd decided on a music career, she was single-minded, completely focused. She set time limits and hit them. "I said my first trip to Nashville would be February of '94. I didn't get there until March '94."

True to these techniques, when Johnson and Siman met they constructed a detailed four-year plan for storming the business. They sought a publishing deal first, so Johnson could fine-tune her craft and make a living. Then Johnson put her studio skills to work, recording and singing not just her own demos but those of other songwriters. That multiplied the number of times Nashville's publishers, producers and record company executives heard her voice. By 1997 she had a publisher, by 1999 a record company. Her studio smarts also paid off when Room With a View's producer Paul Worley - who has worked with Willie Nelson, Pam Tillis and the Dixie Chicks - gave her a co-producing credit and a portion of his royalty. He thought she deserved recognition for massaging the disc's sound. In late 2000, Arista's Canadian affiliate, BMG Music, released Johnson's single "Georgia" on a compilation of country music. Then in February, Room With a View debuted in Canada, with the U.S. release following that summer. By October, almost 50,000 copies had been sold in this country. She'd mapped out the route, and Johnson was getting where she wanted to go.

At the moment, though, in our restaurant booth, she's getting restless. She's anxious to head out to an afternoon party with family and friends. But she obliges me by rhyming off the entries on her current goal sheet, which is tacked up on the armoire in her bedroom: Get to church more often; spend two weeks in a hot place; produce another artist; buy a boat. Writing down your dreams really works, Johnson tells me. "You forget about those goals when you don't have them sitting in front of you. Look at Madonna," she says, refrering to the pop diva's first interview. " 'So, what do you want to be, Madonna?' 'I want to rule the world.'

"She did it!" Johnson exclaims. "How did she know that?"

Six times Johnson rehearsed her performance of "Complicated" for the live awards show that would be aired on national TV. The floor director of the CBC-TV crew threw out dozens of instructions about where to turn, how to turn, where to look. She nailed every move. So when she doesn't quite hit all the marks during the actual show, I sense she's nervous. But as she gracefully mounts the stage in her sequined bell-bottoms and black halter to collect five of a possible eight trophies (she competed against herself in two categories), Johnson is remarkably self-assured. She suppresses a slight tremor in her voice to articulately thank all the right people. She dedicates her win for album of the year to her dead brother. As she meets the press afterwards, the first words out of her mouth are an apology for forgetting to acknowledge Country Music Television at the podium. Those goal sheets have trained Johnson to pay every detail its due.

The day before she'd mused aloud, "Why me? Why am I so lucky?" Then she assertively offered me the answer: "Somebody said luck is preparation meeting opportunity. I prepared myself and it came together."

Bruce Allen, Canada's most successful artist manager, predicts that more commercial success lies ahead for Johnson. At an industry seminar, and in the midst of pontificating on the state of country music before some 200 record company and radio employees, the outspoken industry veteran responsible for managing Bryan Adams, Anne Murray and the country singer Martina McBride made glowing references to Johnson. He elaborated for me on why she thinks her future is sparkling. "She writes from a woman's perspective and also does a lot more with it than the traditional country writers," he said. "She turns a phrase better, and it's one that's a little more current."

You can hear exactly what he's getting at on the much-awarded single "Complicated," which opens with the line, "I'm so scared that the way that I feel is written all over my face." The pop-sounding song also hints at what Allen considers Johnson's ace: her appeal beyond country music. When BMG Music excised the song's slide guitar, it rose to number 11 on the adult contemporary charts and earned airplay on major pop radio stations in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. "The big-selling artists - virtually all of them are crossovers," says Allen. And surely, "Conquer pop" would make a worthy new entry for that goal sheet hanging from the door of the bedroom armoire.

To comment on this or any other Elm Street article, please write to elmstreet@m-v-p.com.


Sandy Nicholson has photographed actors, athletes and musicians, but it's country singers in particular that he finds fascinating. "They're always kind of humble, because they have massive followings but they're never really recognized by pop culture in general." Nicholson listened to country star Carolyn Dawn Johnson's CD and drew upon the theme of travelling for the photos in "A Guitar and a Full Tank of Gas" (page 22). His work has appeared in Vogue, Rolling Stone and Wired and at the national portrait galleries in London and Canberra, Australia. Nicholson's next exhibit, "Lifts," will be at the Tatar Alexander Gallery in Toronto this summer.

Stylist Charlotte Carson, who worked on both "Metallica" (page 54) and "A Guitar and a Full Tank of Gas" (page 22), says it is instinct and international trends that influence her choice of clothes for a photo shoot or fashion spread. "You just know certain collections are going to be newsworthy." Before the day of the shoot, Carson visits stores and showrooms in search of the perfect necklace or jacket. From the wide assortment of items that she gathers, only a handful actually make it into the magazine. Carson calls the process "very collaborative," adding that "constant variety and working with totally different people are what I love about my job."

From sleeping with a transistor radio under her pillow at the age of 6 to sneaking into nightclubs at 16, writer Helen Metella has always been "mad about music." Her forays into the professional world of music have included a job at a record company in Toronto, disc jockeying at a radio station in Hamilton, Ont., and writing as the rock critic for the Edmonton Journal for eight years. In "A Guitar and a Full Tank of Gas" (page 22), Metella profiles rising country artist Carolyn Dawn Johnson. By virtue of living in Alberta where "country music permeates your skin," it's a genre she's grown to appreciate.

(c) 2001 Elm Street Magazine