The pride of Grande Prairie, Alberta, Carolyn Dawn Johnson was born into the country lifestyle in 1971 to a farming couple and the youngest of three children. By the time she was old enough to go to school, she was already playing the piano and singing in the church choir. Although she grew up with traditional country music being played in the household, she eventually took to pop and modern country, as well, including ABBA, Fleetwood Mac, Reba McEntire, and Marty Stuart.
The family moved to Westlock while she was a teenager, and continued pursuing her passion of music by continuing her piano lessons, as well as adding the flute, saxophone, mandolin, and clarinet, and later the guitar, to her repetoire. Her high school teachers though tried to steer her towards science, and after graduating, she took those criticisms to heart, first studying biology at Trinity Western University in Langley, BC for a year. But it was while aspiring to be a teacher at the University of Alberta that she began sitting in with different bands at night when she started to re-think her life.
She moved to Vancouver and enrolled at Columbia Academy to learn the technical side of the business while writing songs. She joined the Nashville Songwriters Association International and moved to Music City in ’94, where she attended as many songwriting workshops and clinics as she could, while working as a bartender and waitress to make ends meet. She eventually signed a songwriting deal with Patrick Joseph Music, and over the next few years had her songs recorded by Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, Mindy McCready, Pam Tillis, and Suzy Bogguss, among others.
In 1999, her song “Single White Female,” co-written with Shaye Smith, was picked up by Chely Wright, and became a #1 hit. It wasn’t long after that when Jo Dee Messina took another of her songs, “Downtime,” to #5. That same year, she was asked if she’d sing background on a couple of McBride’s songs. This in turn led to Johnson being invited to tour with her as part of her band, which lasted for over a year.
Having signed a record deal with Arista, her debut album, ROOM WITH A VIEW, was in the stores in 2001, and almost instantly went gold at home by selling 50,000 copies. She was already on tour with McBride, Reba McEntire, Jamie O’Neal, and Sara Evans when it was released, and it produced two #1 hits in Canada, “Georgia” and “Complicated” – the latter of which was also a top 10 single in the US. Although the album failed to make the top 40 south of the border, it reached # 8 in Canada, and also featured other tracks like “Tumble and Roll” (one of two songs co-written with Kim Carnes) and “Not Enough to Stay,” both only available on the Canadian release.
The year ended with Johnson receiving a record-breaking ten nominations from the CCMA (Canadian Country Music Association), with “Georgia” and “Complicated” both in the running for single, song, and video of the year. She eventually walked out with five awards that night, including her first female artist of the year award.
She began 2002 opening for Alan Jackson and Kenny Chesney, and as “I Don’t Want You To Go” reached the top 10 on both sides of the border, and “One Day Closer To You” hit #24 in the US, the year was rounded out by another five CCMA nominations, resulting in three more wins, including her second consecutive win for female artist of the year. She also redeemed her loss the year before by winning the 2002 Juno Award for best country artist, as well as an Academy of Country Music award for top new female artist.
In ’03, she embarked on her first co-headlining tour with Keith Urban while writing material for her follow-up album. DRESS REHEARSAL was released the next year, and again struck gold. The album debuted at #1 in Canada and #9 in the US. Although she’d made her mark on the industry first as a songwriter, and wrote or co-wrote every song on ROOM WITH A VIEW, the first single from the new album was the only song from it she didn’t write.
Written by her usual partner Troy Verges with Aimee Mayo, “Simple Life” peaked at #13 on the Canadian chart. The SOCAN song of the year winner “Die Of A Broken Heart” and “Head Over High Heels” followed, both cracking the top 10 at home, while the title track made it to #11.But the album’s success wasn’t duplicated in the US, and although she was nominated for another seven CCMA awards that year and she won four, musical differences caused her to split from Arista.
She found a new home with Angeline Entertainment in ’06, and released LOVE AND NEGOTIATION that summer. A fall-out with Equity Music Group however delayed an American release until late 2009 on Dancing Lily Music with a different jacket. For the album, she donned the producer’s hat for the first time, and as usual, she was the sole or chief songwriter on all of the songs. Although it failed to chart in the US due to her lengthy absence, she was still selling albums and selling out crowds in Canada. The title track, “Taking Back My Brave,” “Got a Good Day,” and “Into You” gave her a third straight gold record. She took home the first of two more CCMA artist of the year honours in as many years, and though she was nominated for a Juno for country album of the year, but for the second straight time, failed to capture the award.
Now married with two children, family life was taking centre stage and she toured less often for the next few years. But still writing, she returned to the studios in 2010, resulting in LOVE RULES later that year. Although five singles were released over the next couple of years – “Let Me Introduce Myself,” “The Whole Thing,” “Stop for Me,” “I’d Still Have You,” and “Reach You,” none cracked the top 40 on either side of the border.
She continued to tour off and on throughout Canada and sporadically in the States over the next couple of years. And even without releasing any new material, she still took home the CCMA female artist of the year award in 2012. That same year, she also appeared on Johnny Reid’s album FIRE IT UP, doing the duet “Baby I Know It.”