Sarah Johns

One of the first triumphs of Sarah Johns' country music career was getting flipped off by audiences when she opened shows for Toby Keith.

One of the first triumphs of Sarah Johns' country music career was getting flipped off by audiences when she opened shows for Toby Keith.

That was the enthusiastic endorsement to a song she wrote about a cheating ex.

Instead of a ring finger, she gives him "The One in the Middle," the first single from her debut album on Sony label BNA.

Johns, who wrote the song while in Nashville trying to get a record deal (cleaning tour buses and teaching exercise classes to make ends meet), says she didn't want to be another girl shopping another love song.

"I wanted a song that would bust some people's balls, and people would go, Oh my God, did she just say 'skank'?" recalls Johns, 26.

But there's a lot more to Johns, who hopes the title track of her album, "Big Love in a Small Town," will get airplay from the family-oriented country stations that wouldn't touch her first single.

"It reminds me of where I'm from and the audience," says Johns, who hails from the "hollers" of Pollard, Ky., ¬a woodsy space between mountains where she and her brothers would play with rocks and sticks, near a home with no running water. "I didn't even wear a shirt till I was like eight years old," says Johns, who sang in churches and listened to country tapes by Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline on the sly.

It was during her regular singing gig at a restaurant while attending the University of Kentucky that Toby Keith's manager discovered her. With his encouragement, she dropped out of school and moved to Nashville.

"I thought, 'I'm not going home with my tail between my legs,'" says Johns, who wrote songs and recorded demos for a year and a half before Keith's manager offered her the opening slot. She landed a deal with Sony Nashville on the strength of audience reaction to "The One in the Middle."

Amid the radio station visits and concerts -- Johns performed in York, Pa., recently at the Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Ray Price show -- her album debuted at No. 31 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart and No. 3 on Heatseekers.

Johns, who idolizes the straight-ahead country of Loretta Lynn and Wynette, co-wrote all the songs on her plain-spoken, fiddle-fueled album, which was produced by Joe Scaife (Gretchen Wilson, Montgomery Gentry). She worked with writers such as Dale Dobson, who encouraged her to stay true to her roots.

"It's hard to move from a small town," says Johns. "It's like, who wants a big town anyway? You've got your husband and your kids and your big truck outside and bonfires and stuff. That's what country people like -- if this completely fails, then at least I made the record that my heart wanted to do."

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