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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 continued singing, but left church singing for the bars in Lexington where she went to the University of Kentucky. She sang songs of Patsy Cline, Martina McBride, Lee Ann Womack and Allison Krauss.

"I knew that it wasn't going to fly. If the church people knew I was singing at a bar, they'd ,"oh my God. She shouldn't be doing that.'"

Her break came when Keith's manager came to town. T.K. Kimbrell, hit the bar where Johns was singing.

"He said the atmosphere changed when (I) sang. He said you need to move to Nashville. He said, 'I can't do this here. Are you sure?' He said, 'I'm telling you right now. You need to move to Nashville'."

"In 28 days, I broke up with my boyfriend and moved to Nashville."

"I was just about to graduate. I knew that I would never get this opportunity again. This is your chance. You'd better do it, and I just left. I quit college."

That was three years ago, but hooking up with Kimbrell proved impossible.

"I couldn't get him on the phone after that really. I thought 'oh shit. Oh my God. I cannot believe I've done this'. I know now why he did that. He wanted to see if I would stay and see if I'd go through it. I thought 'honey I'll make you like me'. I've always had that attitude. If you shut a door in my face, I'll find some way to go through it. I always get what I want, but I'm a really hard worker. I busted my tail to get people to like me."

Johns say she got a buzz going about herself, although that was for her songwriting since she was not performing. She worked with Mac McAnally a lot. "It's such a small town. You start talking about somebody, and it gets around in one day."

After about a year, Johns received a surprise phone call from Kimbrell, who told her she needed to go to his office.

"I come to the office, and he said 'we're opening this new label. We want you to go on the road with us'. I said, 'well. I don't know if I should really do that'. He said, 'what you talking about it?' - you're doing it ' - I said, 'okay'. About a month after that, we left and went on the road with Toby."

Johns did about 15 dates with Keith singing a few songs each night. She had not performed at all in Nashville prior to that.

"I had gone from singing in restaurants to doing that. I was so scared. I was cussing and praying at the same time before I got out on stage. I remember (thinking) 'Jesus, please help me' and then I would cuss and (say) 'Jesus, you've got to make me sing good'. It was 20,000 people. I got out there, and it was just like something else took over me. I was made to do this."

"That tour was incredible, and it was the biggest opportunity. Without that, I probably wouldn't be where I am now. I think the world of Toby Keith. He was wonderful to me."

But that did not result in Johns signing with ShowDog Nashville, Keith's label.

Instead, she went with Galante and BNA. "They wanted me to be on their label. I thought BNA would be a better place. I just felt in my gut that's what I needed to do more than anything. I prayed a lot about it. Joe Galante and BNA are the best. You get usually one or two tries to make it. So that's what I felt I needed to do."

"I knew he was the most powerful man in Nashville. I set up with a meeting with him and went over there."

Johns wore a t-shirt that said 'if it ain't fried, I ain't eating it." She wore in pony tails. "I wanted him to see me for who I am. We sit there and talked for two hours."

Galante got in touch that night, offering a record deal. Johns says she told him, 'if I was sitting with you right now, I'd kiss you right on the mouth."

"That was a year ago, and now I have a record," Johns says.

Joe Scaife, who worked with Gretchen Wilson and Montgomery Gentry, produced. Johns had a big hand in the direction of the CD from picking players to the music.

"Just make sure there's fiddle and steel on it, and that's all I care about," says Johns.

She cites Parton, Lynn, Wynette and Womack as influences.

"Like me, she's never really wanted to paint the perfect picture," says Johns of fellow Kentucky native Lynn, who she has yet to meet. "She wasn't afraid to open up...I think it's so neat that she let the audience see who she was. I think that's why I respect her so much and her writing, and she's from Kentucky."

As for Wynette, "I just think that when sang, it came straight out of her soul. She really really lived a tough life."

To Johns, Womack "is incredible. She's very honest in all of her stuff too. Her last record was one of my favorite records that's been out in years."

"She loves my record. She said 'listening to my record was like oh my God, thank you Jesus. Here comes somebody who's going to carry the torch'."

Johns's parents are "completely happy and everything. They just want to keep my heart pure through all of it. That's the main thing to me too. I think this record is the kind of record that could set up a long lasting career. I would like to be here for 10 or 15 years. I know everybody does. I'd really like to be able to do that. I'm so driven and all I care about is my career...The business is so tough."

Come January, Johns could be on a big tour with an unnamed Texas superstar.

"I'm telling you right now, I'm so happy with my life. I love it. I wake up every day and I'm like 'thank you God that I'm being able to do what I love'."

"I love singing more than anything. I feel this is an absolute gift from God that I get to do this."

Does Johns ever have anxiety about how her career will turn out?

"Are you kidding? I feel like that a lot. I know I made a great album. I know it is...But it's so scary because you don't ever know if everything's gong to line up or not line up. It's 'okay hey this single didn't work'. You just have to stay positive. That's what I was saying about being grounded - making sure you're doing this business for the right reasons - not to be famous. Not for the big houses, but it's for the music and it's got to be about that, and that's all."

"It's such a fickle business. It's really scary especially when you want it so bad. I really hope it works out. But you have to work very hard too. I do work very very hard, and I always have."

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