When the late John Prine received a pair of Grammy Awards on March 14, his widow/manager, Fiona Whelan Prine, made a point of including Gena Johnson in an acceptance speech during the pre-telecast.
Johnson was a key member of his crew, serving as the recording engineer for the last vocal session of Prine’s life, when he sang that double-Grammy winner, “I Remember Everything,” in his living room on May 8, 2019.
Now, with the Grammys in the rear view mirror, Johnson has the Academy of Country Music Awards ahead, and they hold their own landmark status. She is up for recording engineer of the year for the ACMs’ Studio Recording Awards, a recognition that’s accompanied by conflicting emotions: Johnson is simultaneously energized about receiving the personal recognition and a bit circumspect that she’s only the first woman to appear in that category on the final ballot.
“It should have happened a long time ago,” she says. “But you know, I’m thankful that it finally did.”
The 2012 graduate of Minnesota State in Mankato has engineered projects by Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Hunter Hayes, Brandi Carlile, Lee Brice, Zac Brown Band and Kacey Musgraves since arriving in Nashville in 2013. A good chunk of those efforts have taken place at historic Studio A, where she worked with Ben Folds just as the building became a symbol for Music Row’s preservation issues. When producer Dave Cobb (The Oak Ridge Boys, The Highwomen) became the studio manager, Johnson was the frequent choice to run the board, owing to her geeky fascination with sound and technology, as well as her attention to detail in making artists feel at home.
“I love to create the studio vibe to be like, ‘Hey, this is my house, come in and hang out,'” she says. “It’s like, just kind of make it as comfortable as possible an environment.”
Part of that comfort level is created in the way that Johnson addresses newcomers. She is one of only a handful of female engineers working consistently in Nashville, and when visitors encounter her for the first time, they often assume she’s the studio manager, the artist or some sort of support staff. When they discover she is, in fact, the engineer, a startled initial reaction usually gets displaced by the end of the session with respect.
“For me to be able to get into the rooms that I have been in, I’m shocked,” she says. “But I also have to think there’s a reason that I stayed in those rooms, you know, and it wasn’t somebody saying, ‘Oh, here, I’m going to give you a leg up, and I’m going to just give this to you.’ I’ve had to earn that spot.”
She has been working toward her current status for years. Johnson’s grandfather had a reel-to-reel tape player back in Minnesota, and she was completely intrigued by the idea of using a machine to capture sound. She grew analytical about all the records she heard — particularly The Beatles and Dusty Springfield‘s Dusty in Memphis — and she worked her way through college, waitressing when she needed to and logging as many hours in local studios as possible along the way as she earned a music business degree.
Johnson moved to Nashville in 2013 for an unpaid internship at Welcome To 1979, a facility that specializes in old-school analog recording. It became a launching pad for a career that is expanding beyond engineering into production on occasion for Ashley Monroe and for former Minnesota State classmate Lee Henke. Some of that work gets done in her own home studio as she juggles her obsessions over microphones and gear with personal balance. It’s in that struggle that she learned to make the recording environment inviting instead of a cold, clinical workspace.
“I spent almost every waking moment in a studio — like my entire twenties were just studios, from 10- to 18-hour days, at least,” she says. “That’s not always good for relationships and those sort of things, but it challenges you as a person to have to figure out your own self-care. So to be able to offer [that] to other people, to me, it’s like basic human stuff.”
Thus, Johnson is known to go the extra mile for artists, stocking the food table with gluten-free products for Musgraves sessions or having specific brands of coffee or creamer for clients. It’s part of creating the right atmosphere — “We’re really relying on emotion,” she says — but it’s also a tad ironic, given that one of the battlegrounds in the early days of the women’s movement was over making coffee. That, however, is no longer a battleground — at least at Johnson’s sessions.
“They’ll make me coffee, too,” she says. “It’s like a family thing.” Clearly, with the groundbreaking ACM nomination, Johnson is accepted in country’s family, though she was surprised at her own reaction when Kindred Partnerships owner Sarah Baer woke her with a congratulatory text when finalists were announced on Feb. 26.
“I just started like ugly-girl crying,” Johnson remembers. “I was like, ‘What? Is this even a thing?’ I honestly was just shocked and honored. I think like all of the emotions were going through me.”
Her willingness to explore them is part of what has propelled her into the upper ranks among Nashville’s engineers. Beyond the shoptalk about condenser mics and decibels — which she’s quite good at — Johnson knows the difference between a good engineer and a bad one is about the atmosphere in the studio and the sound and feeling coming through the speakers. She’s doing her job at peak level when everyone else is able to do theirs.
“Making music is like therapy in its own way,” she says. “You have a group of people that are creative and, you know, we just kind of wade through whatever’s going on in the world together.”
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