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THE PRODUCER'S CHAIR: CARL JACKSON

THE PRODUCER'S CHAIR: DOUG JONSON

By James Rea www.theproducerschair.com

Doug Johnson
Doug Johnson

Whether Doug Johnson is behind the pen as the writer of another record-breaking hit like his 2003 CMA and ACM "Song of the Year," Three Wooden Crosses, (Randy Travis), at the console as the producer of artists like Lee Brice, Hank Jr., Clay Walker and John Michael Montgomery, or behind the desk helming the A&R department of a label, Johnson knows his way around a hit. Throughout his 20-plus year career as a songwriter, Johnson has had over 100 cuts, including 7 Number One Hits and 10 Top 10's by everyone from Rascal Flatts and George Strait to Trace Adkins, Kenny Rogers, Bertie Higgins, Alicia Bridges and Wynonna Judd.

As VP/A&R for Epic Records in the early 90's, Johnson oversaw the careers of Patty Loveless, Collin Raye, Doug Stone, Joe Diffie, Ty Herndon, the Sons of the Desert and many others. Then, it was Tony Brown's recommendation to Irving Azoff that ultimately landed Doug Johnson the presidency at Giant, where he guided the careers of Clay Walker, The Wilkinsons, Blake Shelton, Joe Nichols and Neal McCoy.

From 2003 - 2011 Doug ran the A&R department of Curb Records, whose roster included Tim McGraw, Leann Rimes, Wynonna, Rodney Atkins, Lee Brice, Clay Walker and Heidi Newfield.

Over the past two decades Johnson has carved out impressive niches in all aspects of the business as a top executive, producer, engineer, mixer and musician, but it's his passion for creating a well-crafted song that continues to inspire and motivate him with, an energy and enthusiasm that is unparalleled in this business.

Never mind his production credits or the fact that Johnson is a "STAR" songwriter, just look at his 20 year labelography; Epic, Giant, Curb and now Black River; In 2011, Johnson left CURB to become Vice President of A&R for Black River Entertainment. Talk about bridging the gap between the business and the creative; just put an executive/hit songwriter in charge. Good call Black River. But believe me...Doug Johnson has no delusions about what's behind all of his successes...

"It's all about the song. It's the only thing that solves about every problem that we have here on The Row, other than being shot at. Everything else is an attempt to powerfully capture and express the song in its truest sense and to get it to the listener. I've been fortunate to be involved in several different aspects of the music business but if I could only do one, it would definitely be songwriting."

The Producer's Chair: Are you still doing a lot of writing since you joined Black River?
Doug Johnson: I'm gonna be. And that was part of the deal too. It's as much an A&R guy as it is because, my writing relationships allow me to say; "Hey, here's what we're doin', what else do you have." So it's a way in, to other writers and their songs and if I'm sittin' there writing with someone and we have mutual respect as writers, I can say; "I need your help...please come and be apart of this.

Are you often surprised by a song on the radio?
We can all get confused if we look at radio and say "How many songs can you find that you don't love, that have done well?" I'm not going to spend too much energy with that." Three and a half minutes can make a liar out of anybody. We tend to take our favorite songs from the last 20 years and we put them in a group. And then we expect radio to always be as good as that group as a whole, is. There are certainly songs that an artist, who has had several hits, has earned the right to have success with. Whereas, an artist who hasn't had a hit yet, could not have a hit with that song.

At the NSAI Songwriter Hall of Fame dinner you had Garth, Allen, Wynonna and Taylor there. You would of had to of had The Eagles and The Beatles to represent that many records sales. That's phenomenal in our format. Over 250 Million records, and as hard and as frustrating as it is today, in country music, we need to remind ourselves of that.

Can you tell when a writer has had their hay-day?
We always sort of see that. It's human nature in sports or anything. I don't know if it's their hunger to get there and create and then their perspective changes or they take their eye off the ball or maybe the format subtlety changes a little bit. But then you've got Bill Anderson who has been up for song of the year a couple of times over the last 3,4 or 5 years and six decades of Harlan Howard. So I don't think it has to happen. I think if somebody is gonna get frustrated based on; "Did I have as many hits this year as I had last year or two years ago?"...I think it's just gotta be the love of the song, knowing that we're still just 3 ½ minutes away, which is glory too. We get to Easter egg hunt every day. But sure, there are going to be people who get on rolls and then it kinda seems like it slows down, but...maybe we'll all be one of those who had a big roll and then it slows down. I wish every writer out there, that kind of success.

Is there a publishing arm at Black River?
There is, Celia Frolig runs it, one of the great publishers in this town. She is a-mazing and she's the writer's best friend. Brand new over here, but a big part of this company is going to be artist/writer development. I love that. I was doing quite a bit of that at Curb. There are 4 or 5 acts that people haven't heard yet down there, that I put a lot of energy and time into, that I'm very proud of and it was hard walking away from, but I knew they were in good hands and they know who they are and I'm looking forward to doing that here.

Is the bitching about how much more difficult it is to get cuts these days, because of labels signing artist/writers, and producers who have publishing interests, warranted?
That's because they need to have a hit to get a cut...Well imagine that...that we as songwriters need to have the best song that the artist and record company can find, outside, to get on that project. I think that's how it otta be. And yes you will hear some people say; "You can't get a cut unless the artist wrote it or the producer published it and probably when we do that, we otta get a Billboard out and look, cause I guarantee-ya, there's gonna be some holes in there. When I'm involved as a writer in a song, I automatically take a third of my vote away. Take The House that Built Me...Blake Sheldon was going to cut that and not connected and he gave it to Miranda, who was not connected to it. It's just a great song.

I was thinking about calling up David Ross about this and say "We otta have an article about the "Music Row Misses". One of them is that, a new artist has to have an up-tempo record. I'd love to get David or somebody to go back and look from 1990 till now and look at every artist and see what their first hit was, their first impact record. And by that I mean… Allen Jackson's second record was Here in the Real World. His first record was a tempo. I don't even know if it went top 40. So I would call his first impact record a ballad. And it would be nice to see what the percentage of that is. I think the other thing is, how many hits, that aren't associated through publishing and writing happened last year? I think it would be healthy to see that "yes", it does happen. Mainly when it's where I work, a lot of times, people are going to find songs inside simply because they're aware of it.

One of my hits at CURB was She Won't be Lonely Long with Clay walker. Kelly Lynn pitched that song to him. I did not pitch that song to him. I didn't push it at all. Another, Love Like Crazy, I sent to Lee Brice and the one time I sent something to Lee I said; "I think I've got something you really need to hear before I send it out."

The only reason why somebody is going to cut my song or an outside song is because they think it's a career song, or such a special album song that, they need it on their project and to go live. It's Garth 101. He found about half of em' and co-wrote about half of em'. And he was one of the greatest artist/co-writers of anybody who ever lived in this town. That's something to strive for.

All we can do is, remember how great the great songs are and the great records are. The bar is set pretty darn high. I'm sorry, I don't wanna look down, I wanna look up. Hopefully everybody will have success but I think the songs and records that make you remember where you were, the first time you heard them, like The House That Built Me...those are the ones to strive for. And I think we've got to challenge ourselves to trust the hair on the back of our neck… that radar that God gave us all. Can you imagine; Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain coming in, and the promotional staff hearing that? Jim Ed Norman's back in town. It would be great to have him on your show James. Jim Ed and Randy Travis had a couple of people in his company that said: "We're going to be the laughing stock of The Row". GOD Bless him and whoever, that said: "Let em' Laugh, Randy just celebrated 25 years at the Opry."

Are we making the mistake of still making albums the way we used to?
I don't think that many of us unfortunately, are doing that. I think most of us are trying, because it's human nature, to load up ten shots at a career single, on an album, which does not make for a great album. I think what we're striving to do is make sure that we've got three or four things that sound like records that can be true to the artist, that do belong on radio and then hopefully albums that belong in your car or at home. Maybe we are in the singles business.

If that's the case then why are we still putting 10-12 songs on an album?
Because it's still 70% of, our sales. That's the last number I heard. Digital hasn't replaced that yet. Hopefully we develop artists that somebody wants to take the complete package home and own it. And we have to earn it. We have to earn their trust that if they buy ten or twelve songs by a particular artist that it's worth their money. Everybody says; "Oh well, we just put two or three songs on there and the rest of its junk. That's bull. No-body's trying to screw up. We're all workin' hard. It's a hard business that has wonderful returns. We get to do what we're passionate about and we have the opportunity to make a living doin' it. And it should be very challenging. There are only a few, few, few, few, few people who really get to do this. It should be hard and it should be challenging. We're in the greatest song-town in the world and the song is the one thing that can overcome almost any obstacle. Radio's our friend, radio's expensive, radio's scary but still, there's 100 plus stations, that if they play our record, the entire universe that listens to Country Music will hear it.

Are the label's radio promoters, the same people promoting the records on the internet?
I don't really know. That's a good question.

What is the biggest challenge our industry is facing?
Math...How much we're spending on records to get played on the radio and what the potential sales are. And yet, radio needs us promoting like we do.

As a co-writer and co-publisher, I was very blessed to have the longest-lasting Billboard song and single on Lee Brice ever, on the Country charts. But as a record label, it sucked, because we had to promote a single for 56 weeks. We used to promote one for 13 or 14 weeks and we could have 4 singles on a new artist in one year. The math is a real challenge and yet we don't see the sales equating the difference, hardly ever. Somebody said; "At this point, the Gold Rush has ended." Nobody's finding big nuggets, while panning in the rivers. Those of us who really love this business are going to have to blast and drill and work really hard.

Is there a special project that you've always wanted to produce, one day?
The next new kid that's green and doesn't know any better and just loves it and reminds me just how glorious this business is that we're in. It's the artist who doesn't know you can't do it a certain way. It's always that.

I'm a huge fan of so many people, but it's helping that young artist find him or herself and have the nerve to be honest with them-self. So many artists walk in and they're afraid to say the wrong thing. Screw the wrong thing. What's in your heart? Show us how to do it, come bend the rules. It's that kid, who is willing to live in his car and feels like the luckiest person alive. It's an insane dream, but we're in a business where that can happen.

Now that's a romantic.

Read other Producer's Chair interviews:

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Tony Brown

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Michael Knox

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Forest Glen Whitehead

The Producer's Chair by James Rea - Mark Bright

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