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Sarah Johns: small town girl seeks big love from Nashville

By Jeffrey B. Remz, November 2007

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Johns thought she was on the right track when she went on the road playing a few songs during a Toby Keith concert. "Whenever I did that, they started all over the time - people were flipping me off. I thought oh my gosh, I think I have a hit song. This is crazy. Even Toby Keith said, 'That song's a hit'."

Referring to the reaction she received, Johns said, "I was just freaked out about it." After the tour ended, Johns went straight to label head Joe Galante.

Johns says people were surprised someone like her would sing the song. "A lot of them would go 'Sarah you're really nice."

"It's such a reactive record that the first time you hear that song, you (go) 'oh my God. Did she really say that'? The song only went to like 43, and we're still selling good right now on everything. It's over that one daggone song...It didn't go to the top, which is fine...but I guarantee that there ain't one person at radio who doesn't know who I am right now."

"The first single I think is to just get the attention that we needed and say 'let's set you up'. It's like this too - I had the whole head of SonyBMG came to CRS (Country Radio Seminar, an annual event in February in Nashville to educate country radio personnel about music). He was like, "oh my God, a brunette country singer. We have not had one in a long time. Most of them are blonde. We wanted to set me apart, and I have no problem doing it because it's so tough as a woman to make it at all. You have to come out there guns blazing and say 'You will pay attention to me'."

The next single is the title track, "Big Love in a Small Town," written with Mark Nesler and Tony Martin.

"I never really thought it was a hit, and then when I was doing my radio tour for 12 weeks, I was traveling all over. I see all these places, bean fields and corn fields with a house in the middle. This is really like this song."

Johns says she prefers writing with others. "I never asked the label one time to set up a co-write. I just wanted to do it on my own. I wanted people to write with me because (they) believe in what this girl's doing, and we love her. They will support me throughout my career. These people have become my friends."

The album closes with the autobiographical "It's Hard to be a Girl (In a Young Man's World)," penned with veteran Dean Dillon and Dale Dodson.

"That song is about Nashville, how tough it is here being a woman and getting respect and people really knowing who you are," says Johns. "It's a pretty tough tough road here being a girl. It's really good now."

"I knew it was going to be tough. You've got to have thick skin." Johns says her mentality was 'you're not going to push me around'."

Johns isn't forthcoming about business issues she previously had, but she made it clear she was not happy. "It was about a business relationship. There was a time when I first moved, sometimes it was hard to even get out of bed."

"There were some people here that tried to steer me wrong basically. That's as far as I'm going to go. It was complete business. It went south, and I decided that's not what I needed to do. God watched out for me, and I got out of it."

Johns grew up in Pollard, Ky., a tiny town 90 minutes south of Lexington, Ky. that has tobacco farms.

"It was wonderful," says Johns. "I love to go back. We didn't have running water. It is a little bitty house. There are 150 people down there, so it' really small, but I absolutely just love it down there. I go down there all the time to go let me get my head straight."

"You go back home, and you remember where you're from. It's just got ponds. It's just quiet. I love the sound of crickets and frogs, and when you can hear crickets and frog, (you say) 'okay, this is wonderful'. It's really quiet there. It's where I'm from. It's real peaceful there."

For a good time, folks in Pollard build bonfires and go spotlighting, a way to kill animals at night with headlights to spot them. "It's illegal," says Johns. "so you're not really supposed to do it, but if you're from the country, you do it. They don't really care."

Like many singers, Johns's introduction to music was through her church. "I was in church my whole life singing. Singing all the time. I led praise and worship at a Pentecostal church until I was 21 in Lexington."

"The sound guy (at church) was saying 'Sarah you're really good. You need to do something with it. I said 'okay'. I just kept on singing."

She sure did not get interested in secular music from her family.

"I couldn't really listen to anything. All I could listen to was church music. That's the way it was. I just grew up in church so much, and they didn't want to me listen to so-called secular music."

"I was sneaking when I was mowing grass, I'd listen to Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette. I just loved it."

"I got in trouble a couple of times. I got grounded once for listening to Faith Hill's 'Wild One'."

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