Obviously, it was worth the wait. There was nearly a three-year span between Carolyn Dawn Johnson’s first album, Room With a View, which came out in August 2001, and her second one, Dress Rehearsal, released in May. Even so, her new Arista Records package entered the Billboard country album charts at an emphatic No. 9, a clear indication that Johnson’s fans are loyal as well as patient.
“We didn’t even get started on [the album] until October 2002,” the Canadian-born singer explains. “I had to change producers because [former co-producer] Paul Worley sat me down that summer and let me know that he was taking over [the top A&R spot at] Warner Bros. and couldn’t do my next record with me. So that was a little shift of gears. … When I decided to work with Dann Huff — who had played on my first record — we started in October, but then we had like only half days here and there. It was just really unfocused.”
Johnson and Huff compared schedules and concluded that they could begin recording in earnest at the end of February 2003. “I got married in March,” Johnson says. “So that took a bunch of time. And then I went back on the road. I was just trying to piece things together properly. As time was ticking, I went to the record company and asked, ‘Is this OK that I’m gone this long, because my last single was on the radio in January of 2003.’ That was when ‘One Day Closer to You’ peaked. I was really nervous about not having new product out. I needed to do something, but I didn’t have a lot of time. And they just basically said, ‘Let’s get the music right, and we’ll see what we can do.’ The music didn’t get really totally finished until January of this year.”
As her co-producer, Huff “brings a lot to the table” Johnson asserts. “He’s just very technical — in a good way. He’s great at getting great bed tracks, and he’s got lots of melody and hook ideas. He also knows how to bring out the best in a singer. I did a lot of the vocals on my own, and then I would take them to Dann and say, ‘What do you think of this?’ He would always say, ‘This is so great! I love this! Now go in there and don’t even think about anything. I want you to try this.’ Or he might say, ‘In this area right here, I feel like you could have just a little more personality and blah, blah, blah.’ He’d just give me a few overall big tips. I’d go in there and sing my butt off and come back and find those little gems that he was looking for. I feel like we found some cool things together.”
Of the 12 songs on Dress Rehearsal, Johnson co-wrote 11, teaming up with such hit composers as Troy Verges, Shaye Smith, Craig Wiseman, Rivers Rutherford, Aimee Mayo, Gordon Kennedy and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member Charlie Black. She says she met constant co-writers Verges and Smith in the late ’90s when she was shopping for her first publishing deal: “Those are two of my staples, as far as being people I can count on to write with me at night, in the day, come out on the road with me, whatever.” She encountered Black when she was working — and occasionally singing — at future labelmate Phil Vassar’s Hard Day’s Night club in a Nashville suburb.
To Johnson’s delight, she was able to enlist Amy Grant and Keith Urban for guest spots on the album. Grant provides the vocal harmony on “Life as We Know It,” and Urban sings and plays guitar on “Die of a Broken Heart.” Says Johnson, “I’ve been a fan of Amy’s for years — since I was a little girl. I loved the fact that she wrote a lot of her songs and played guitar. I had gone to many of her concerts. Years and years ago, there was a TV show in Canada called Thrill of a Lifetime. Basically, people wrote in about what their thrill of a lifetime would be. And I remember I wrote in asking if I could sing with Amy Grant. I never got a letter back, and I never got picked for [the show]. … She’s friends with Dann Huff — they both grew up in Nashville. So I asked Dann, ‘Do you think we could get Amy to sing on it?’ … When she came in, it was such a sweet moment. I had saved ‘Life as We Know It’ for her to sing on because it was just one of those laidback camera snapshots of my life with my new husband and my happiness. I thought she could probably relate because she and [husband] Vince [Gill] seem so happy. Sure enough, when I played it for her so she could learn the harmonies, she goes, ‘You know, I can totally relate to this song.'”
Johnson became acquainted with Urban when they were touring Canada together. “At the end of the show,” she recalls, “we did this acoustic set as our encore. We just had our guitars out there, and another guy named Jimmy Rankin, who’s a great artist in Canada, would also get out on stage with us. We’d all kind of pitch in. … The audience kept reacting to [‘Die of a Broken Heart’] so huge. … I went back to the record company and said, ‘I really feel like this song needs to be on the record.’ So they let me put in on there. And I asked Keith if he would be willing to come and lend his talents since he was the one who had watched it grow.”
The title song of the new album, with its warning that life is to be savored now, is Johnson’s favorite. “When I wrote that song [with Verges], I was in the midst of chaos. I felt overwhelmed in that I couldn’t keep up with things. I was never answering the phone when friends or family called because I didn’t have time to talk to them. I always could count on them when I needed them, but nobody seemed to be able to count on me. I started feeling, ‘Hey, if I’m going to do this and have no friends or family, then this isn’t worth it.’ … It was a message I wanted to share with everyone else and let them know that sometimes I’m not always the best friend or the best daughter — but please know that in my heart I’m trying.”