If Sarah Johns has one piece of advice for hopeful young country singers, it’s this: Move to Nashville. Bust your rear.
Phoning from the Music City, the pretty, 27-year-old newcomer is cooking, cleaning, songwriting proof that a tireless work ethic is key to breaking through in today’s oversaturated music world.
Less than 24 hours before, Johns rocked a Jackso
nville arena during her final night on a four-month adventure opening for country titan George Strait: “I learned so much out there,” she gushes with a cheerful Kentucky twang.
But Johns just walked through the doors of home sweet home, and she’s right back to work - chatting with a journalist and cleaning house.
“Man, I am waterin’ these plants, and I am gettin’ water all over myself,” she says.
“I’m a workaholic,” Johns admits minutes later. “Obviously! I’m doing an interview right now, and I’m still having to work while I’m doing that.”
“No, now I’m folding clothes,” she admits, giggling.
For Johns, whose latest country radio single is “He Hates Me,” staying busy seems to come naturally. Raised in tiny Pollard, Ky., she sang in church, then attended the University of Kentucky in Lexington where she earned a degree in - of all totally not country things - art history. (“Like, what in the world?” Johns exclaims. “I don’t even know any history! On art! I have no idea how I got that degree!”) It’s in Lexington that Toby Keith’s manager discovered Johns singing at a seafood restaurant and convinced her to move to Nashville. It was a difficult decision: An earlier trip to Nashville had cost her father $20,000 on what Johns calls “the worst demo in the world.” But, 28 days later, Johns says, she broke up with her boyfriend and relocated to country music ground zero. For good.
“I called my dad every day bawling my eyes out,” Johns says. “I didn’t know what to do. I was sad. I was scared.” But Johns stuck it out and chased her dream the old-fashioned way: “The way that Dolly did it,” she says. “The way that Loretta did it.”
Johns cleaned tour buses to earn money. She met and worked with songwriters.
A year and a half later, Johns was invited to perform two songs each night opening for a Toby Keith tour. One of her tunes, “The One in the Middle” - a clever anthem about flipping an ex-boyfriend the bird - went over well with Keith’s fans. Buoyed by the experience, Johns marched into the office of Sony BMG Nashville’s chairman and pitched herself a record deal. Her debut album, “Big Love in a Small Town,” was released in 2007.
Johns, who co-wrote every song, has obvious talent and a pure, convincing singing voice. But she readily admits that persistence and luck have been equal factors.
“The thing is, it’s just meetin’ the right people,” Johns says. “I totally think that’s what it is. And I think you have to have a really good work ethic. I’ve had people slam the door in my face a couple times. And whenever they do, I just kind of go, `All right, honey, I’ll find a crack, and I’ll get through there somewhere.’
“I just had a lot of determination, and I’m headstrong and stubborn. Stubborn, I guess, in the right way.”
The feistiness of Johns’ first single, “The One in the Middle” - which cracked the country Top 40 but remains criminally underappreciated - may draw comparisons to Gretchen Wilson and Miranda Lambert. But the rest of Johns’ album paints a different picture. Some of Johns’ songs have a timeless classic country feel. Others fuse a Shania Twain-like swagger with traditional elements such as fiddle and pedal steel.
“A lot of people compare my stuff to early Lee Ann Womack more than they do anything,” Johns says, “which is fine with me. And I love Miranda, and I love Gretchen. I think they’re really talented.”
Johns says she’s been writing new songs - on tour and at home - but has no immediate plans to begin a second album. There’s still work to be done in support of her debut. “He Hates Me” is only the album’s second single.
She’s just a little bummed not to be singing that song for Strait fans.
“I mean, it’s really sad coming off this tour,” Johns says. “I’ve been out in front of 20,000 people every night, and now I’m home watering my plants and doing my laundry. But I’m so ready to get in the trenches, and now go to fairs and radio shows and those kinds of things. Because that’s where you get your true fans.”
It’s hard work. But at least she’ll still be traveling by tour bus. Best of all, this is one tour bus that Johns won’t have to clean.
“No,” Johns says. “But I do.”
“I know, isn’t it awful?” she says, laughing. “No, I really do. I clean the toilet every morning, because, you know, I’m on there with a bunch of guys, and they always miss.”