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Carolyn Dawn Johnson has come a long way, baby

Story By Tom Roland • Photo by Chuck Jones

Long before she was a country star, Carolyn Dawn Johnson was a Reba McEntire fan. "I remember her album Rumor Has It," recalls Carolyn Dawn. "I cried many tears for that album! Me and my girlfriend listened to that all the time."

That's why it was so special for CDJ - as friends call her - to step onstage every night with Reba herself on last year's Girls' Night Out tour. At the end of each show, Carolyn Dawn (along with tourmates Martina McBride, Sara Evans and Jamie O'Neal) joined country's favorite redhead for renditions of The Judds' "Girls Night Out" and The Eagles' "Heartache Tonight."

For Carolyn Dawn, the importance of that moment didn't hit her until a former co-worker from her mid-1990s days as a waitress in British Columbia sent her an e-mail. "She said, 'You go, girl!' " recounts CDJ. " 'Remember when we all took the bus down to see Reba and Brooks & Dunn in Seattle? You said that one day you were gonna be up there with them, and look at you now - you're on tour with Reba McEntire!' It just hit home when I got that letter."

Maybe Carolyn Dawn hadn't noticed the extent of her achievement because she's just been too busy. If she's not on tour, she's writing songs, meeting with managers and agents, or being interviewed or photographed. "I didn't know how to imagine what this was gonna be like," she admits. "I get tired, and I'm not home very much. That kinda bothers me sometimes, but I think I'm still in the seed-planting stage of my career, and nothing can be taken for granted.

"I just feel like everything I'm doing is groundwork, and I'm building a fan base - a true fan base. That's what really counts. Singing for the people is very rewarding, and I'm really starting to feel that."

However, she's still coming to grips with the ups and downs of the business, such as the nerve-racking experience of watching her songs fight off the competition to make their way up the charts. "I'm learning just how frustrating all the chart stuff is," confesses Carolyn Dawn.

She did have some experience as a chart-watcher in the days when she was writing hits like Chely Wright's "Single White Female," but this time it's a bit more personal. "If a song falls down the chart, it hurts a lot more when you're the singer," she explains. "It's really hard not to take it personally sometimes, because I've visited almost every single radio station on the planet, and sometimes you're just like, 'Why won't they play me?'

"So I'm trying to just remember that as long as I'm reaching people, I'll play for whoever wants to listen. And the letters, and people who sing along at the shows, and people that stand in line for autographs - all that stuff makes me think, 'Oh, my gosh, my music is affecting people the way other people's music has touched me.' "

The music that had that kind of impact on Carolyn Dawn growing up included Reba and The Judds, but she also has a particular fondness for Fleetwood Mac, folk-pop singer Tracy Chapman and '70s pop group ABBA. "I was a big fan of ABBA," she testifies with a grin. "I don't know why. I listened to those songs over and over, and they totally affected me. I learned every harmony part."

You can hear the influence of those crystal-clear harmonies on Carolyn Dawn's debut album, Room With A View. She began recording those sounds on Sept. 9, 1999 - the same day, she found out later, that Girls' Night Out buddy Jamie O'Neal began recording her own first album. CDJ recorded her eventual Top 10 smash "Compli-cated" that day, as well as her latest hit, "I Don't Want You To Go." But the completed album didn't hit the streets until August 2001 - meaning she had nearly two years to work up a major case of nerves. "When I got close to the release date, I was scared to put it out," she admits. "I thought, 'What if nobody buys it? What if nobody cares about this music?' I was in Panicsville!"

Making the album brought up other difficult issues for Carolyn Dawn, too. Her brother died on Christmas Eve 1998, and the following day, she wrote a poem about him - which became the basis for her album's title song. His death is still a subject she won't talk about publicly. "It's a really sad thing for our family," she says, "and I don't want to put them in that position."

For the same reasons, she was hesitant about using Room With A View as an album title. "Originally I was gonna call the record A Little Bit Of This, A Little Bit Of That," she recalls, "because I thought that would encompass all the different styles of music on it. But after we finished the song 'Room With A View,' my manager leaned over to me and said, 'I don't know - maybe this album should be called Room With A View.'

"And I started crying, and I said, 'No, I don't want it to be a spectacle.' But after I listened to it, it was the perfect title for the record - not only as a tribute to my brother, but just because this record is really my room with my view. It's my songs, I co-produced it, and I feel like it's a window to my soul."

Through that window, we can hear a woman who may sing about bittersweet subjects, but always with a glimmer of hope in her voice.

"I live my life like that," she says. "I really am always looking for the light at the end of the tunnel, and believing it's there, and thinking that even though something bad may have happened, it's gonna get better."