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 eraLoretta, Tammy, Dollyare, 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."