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Sarah Johns -
Artist info
Sarah Johns

Sarah Johns

Sarah Johns

Sarah Johns is a throwback to the era when women with firm country roots brought passionate vocals and world-class songwriting talent to bear on careers they pursued with laser intensity. The cream of that era—Loretta, Tammy, Dolly—are, as might be expected, the foundation of Sarah’s love of country music. They are also the touchstones for the dream she has pursued so fervently and so well, and they are the names that have come up as critics and reviewers discuss her music. Read more on
Sarah Johns is a throwback to the era when women with firm country roots brought passionate vocals and world-class songwriting talent to bear on careers they pursued with laser intensity. The cream of that era—Loretta, Tammy, Dolly—are, as might be expected, the foundation of Sarah’s love of country music. They are also the touchstones for the dream she has pursued so fervently and so well, and they are the names that have come up as critics and reviewers discuss her music. Sarah’s is a voice with both power and subtlety, singing songs in the classic country mold amid crisp 21st-century production. Given her background, her natural gifts, her clear-eyed vision and her undeniable work ethic, it’s not surprising that she has burst seemingly fully formed onto the country scene.

What is perhaps incredible is the fact that five years ago the thought of singing country music in Nashville was a distant dream. About that time, she was singing in her local church, something she had done since she was not much more than a toddler, when the man who ran the sound system approached her. “You’re really good,” he told her. “You need to do something with this.” Encouraged, she sang a handful of concerts in area churches and raised enough money to record a CD before deciding to follow her heart into country music. What followed was an odyssey with plenty of twists and turns, promise and disappointment, that has led ultimately to a debut record that brilliantly captures the huge talent and country sensibilities that have brought her here. Big Love In A Small Town has its roots in Sarah’s bottom-line view of country: “Honey, as long as there’s fiddle and steel and the vocal’s good, I don’t care about nothin’ else.” That approach has found its perfect foil in producer Joe Scaife (Gretchen Wilson, Montgomery Gentry), who brings a crisp edge and the perfect synthesis of old and new to the project. Perhaps nowhere is the mix of modern and classic more apparent than in “Big Love In A Small Town,” which combines Loretta authenticity and Shania sophistication in a track which spikes the needle on both the hot and cool sides of the equation. “A Lot To Let Go Of” is a smooth country shuffle steeped in regret and self-knowledge.

“It’s Hard To Be A Girl (In A Young Man’s World)” is an aching look at a woman whose strengths are drowning in her vulnerability, with conviction dripping from every note. “Touch Me” is a woman in the full throes of passion, while “He Hates Me” is a lighthearted look at a crush gone awry. “When Do I Get To Be A Woman” kicks off the project with high spirits and plenty of fiddle and steel, and the first single, “The One In The Middle,” is the ultimate flip-off, proof positive that Sarah is a new kind of classic country singer and that done-wrong songs are not what they used to be. Overall, Big Love In A Small Town is a powerful representation of an important new talent, one whose background has storybook elements that render her music that much more authentically impressive. It doesn’t get much more country than Sarah. She grew up in Pollard, Kentucky, a town so small it doesn’t even appear on a map.

There were few kids around, and she and her brothers spent plenty of time outdoors, “playing with rocks and sticks and making mud pies.” “We’d go back in the holler behind the house and catch frogs and go to the pond to swim,” she says. “My mom had to pick leeches off me sometimes.” “We had no running water,” she adds matter-of-factly. “In fact, I just had a double root canal because we didn’t have fluoride in the water growing up.” Her parents were strict—the half-hour a day of TV she could watch was closely monitored, and she was once grounded for listening to Faith Hill’s “Wild One”—but her mother was nearly as high-spirited as Sarah is. “She used to go with us and drop us off to toilet paper houses,” she says. “When the people would come she’d yell, ‘Come on! Get back in the car!’ She was just fun.” Sarah wasn’t allowed to listen to country music at home, but by 12 she was sneaking Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette into her cassette to listen through headphones while mowing the grass. “I remember when I first heard Tammy,” she says.

“I would think, ‘My God, that woman sounds like she’s crying when she sings,’ and I thought, ‘This is incredible.’” At 16, she got a car and was finally able to listen to what she wanted when she wanted, which meant her diet of country music increased. She had been singing nearly all her life, primarily in church, where she overcame early stage fright to become an accomplished vocalist. Once the sound man gave her encouragement, she began singing elsewhere, and her heart quickly led her to country. While attending the University of Kentucky, she sang for about a year in a Lexington-area seafood restaurant called Regatta. Backed by a guitarist, she sang classic country and the likes of Etta James to crowds that included college friends, her father, and plenty of rowdy regulars. “Lots of times they’d all get snockered out there,” she says, “and one night somebody jumped right into the pond behind me while I was singing, so it was an experience. But I would make two or three hundred dollars a night in tips.

I’d wear a really nice dress and those men in there would tip me really good. It was fun, and people seemed to like me.” The friend from church introduced her to some lawyers and she found a backer, but a preliminary trip to Nashville ended with a worthless $20,000 demo and some hard-earned wisdom. “It can be tough to get respect when you’re a young woman, especially from Pollard, Kentucky. I have been done wrong, but I don’t get resentful. I learned from it and I’m almost happy I went through these things.

That made me go, ‘You know what, I’ll show you. I’ll do this with or without your help.’ I think every single thing you go through in your life just makes you stronger.” She continued the gig at Regatta as the dream got stronger. “I remember going to a Rascal Flatts/Sara Evans concert, standing there with my girlfriends from college, and I remember tears streaming down my face and my girlfriend looking over at me and saying, ‘Sarah, what’s wrong?’ I said, ‘I know I can do this. I just don’t know how.’” Not long afterward, Toby Keith’s manager came to see Sarah at the restaurant and told her, “You need to move to Nashville. You’ve got it.

There’s something about you.” “Within 28 days,” she says, “I broke up with my boyfriend, I quit college, and I moved. I didn’t know a soul except that manager, and I don’t think he believed this girl was tough enough to push through and had the drive to do it.” She cleaned tour buses—toilets and all—and taught exercise classes to make ends meet, and looked for her break. After about a year and a half, Toby’s manager called her and offered her a slot doing two songs on one of Toby’s tours. “I didn’t even get a chance to practice with my band,” she says. “It was, ‘Honey, get out there and do it or die,’ and I thought, ‘I can do this.’ That’s the way I am.

Whatever life hands me, I make the best of it. And as soon as I walked up on that stage and they counted off the song and I started singing, it hit me: ‘This is what you’ve been put on earth to do.’ At that moment I knew, ‘I can really do this.’” The two songs she played were “When Do I Get To Be A Woman” and “The One In The Middle,” which she had just written and which got a huge reaction. “I thought, ‘This song is out of control,’” she says. “I was out there in front of anywhere from 14,000 to 20,000 people, and women would flip me off or flip their husbands off, loving this song. People were freaking out about the song and nobody knew who I was.” Armed with that reaction, she approached Sony BMG Nashville label chairman Joe Galante, who offered her a recording contract. She quickly lined up publishing and management deals and began writing feverishly. “I busted my tail,” she says, “five days a week, sometimes more.

I just wrote all the time, because your first record—honey, you’ve got one time to make an impression.” She is sure she has put everything she has into the project, and that she has remained true to her original vision. “I’ve got some dirt country stuff on there,” she says. “No matter how this does, I stuck to what I wanted to do. I’ve got a record that’s country and that I can be proud of, and that’s almost more important to me than anything. “People should really hear conviction in a singer’s voice,” she adds. “That’s why I love someone like Tammy Wynette, because when you heard her sing it was like her soul was crying out to you, and if some of that doesn’t come across, I don’t even want to hear it.

I think when you hear a song, it should really move you.” Sarah’s country credentials extend to her taste in food. She’s a country cook whose jalapeño cornbread calls for two sticks of butter and an iron skillet, and for her, perfection on a plate involves fried chicken and mashed potatoes washed down with plenty of sweet tea. They also extend to her downtime. “To this day, when I get off the road,” she says, “I want to go to the river to catch crawdads and frogs, and not have any make-up on. I like nice, expensive stuff and everything, but I’m pretty simple.

Anything can make me happy. I like nature and animals. I can be happy lifting rocks for an hour and catching crawdads. “What you see is what you get,” she adds. “I’m real.

And I really hope people will say, ‘You know what? I like her, and I like her music.’” Read more on User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply..
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