By James Rea
Doug Johnson returns to The Producer’s Chair, for the first show of the year, on Thursday, January 28, at Douglas Corner Café at 6 p.m.
Although many prefer not to work ‘inside,’ Doug Johnson is one of a small handful of legendary producers who prefer to be at the pulse, where A&R, artist development and writer development collide. And for good reason. At the heart of it all is a songwriter with well over 100 cuts, including 10 No. 1s.
Interestingly enough, Johnson has the distinction of being the rare hit songwriter in Nashville to maintain three successful careers simultaneously. Along with being a songwriter and producer, he is the Vice President of A&R at Black River Entertainment.
Over the past 25 years, while serving as President of Giant Records and VP of A&R at Epic Records and Curb Records, Johnson has signed, produced, written with, nurtured, launched and overseen the careers of countless stars. And you only have to be in his presence for about one minute to realize that Black River’s growing pains are officially over.
Listening to Johnson talk about the joy and the significance of having the opportunity to sit in a room and write with Kelsea Ballerini, and praising Black River CEO Gordon Kerr while they go through that vital process of discovery, speaks volumes to his passion and the keys to his success. And he has plenty to say.
“Kelsea Ballerini is totally Kelsea Ballerini,” he says. “She has not tried to be Kelsea Ballerini. And luckily for us, Forrest Whitehead and Jason Massey who co-produced her, basically went in and made a record that the three of them love. Thankfully we weren’t dumb enough to find anything wrong with that. They made the record they love, and personally, that she loves.”
In addition, Lee Brice’s massive hit, “Love Like Crazy,” written by Johnson and Tim James. It broke the record established by Eddy Arnold for the longest chart run in the history of the Hot Country Songs charts, staying on for 56 weeks from 2009-2010.
“I just think we all have to do what we love, whether you are the artist, the writer or the producer,” Johnson says. “If we feel like God put us on this crazy planet to do it, then I think he gave us the mechanism of the hair on the back of our neck to let us know if we are going in the right direction. We just need to stay the most passionate, relatable, real-life format there is.”
The Producer’s Chair: Have you been writing as much as you’d hoped since we last spoke?
Johnson: I have been. Most of it’s late-afternoon or evening writes. I haven’t had time to be demoing as much as I should be, but I don’t know, it’s what keeps me sane. It’s what I love. It reminds me of how hard it is to find a song that really is worthy of everything else that has to happen—to have money spent and the many, many people that work hard to make that successful.
Are you mainly writing with artists on the label?
Normally, early on with an artist, I will write with them because it’s a great way to get to know each other. It’s a wonderful way to sit across the room from a young artist, just to know what they’re passionate about, but I’ve never felt like a writer that was very good at target writing. If I’m lucky enough that God sends something to the room and I happen to be the recipient, I’m good with that.
You’ll never get to know an artist like you can sitting in a room going through the writing process. Seeing what moves them and what they get excited about and what melodies stand out for them and asking the questions: “What’s your favorite feel? If you were to do a show tonight and you were doing 60 minutes, halfway in the middle of that show, what do you wish—if you had that song, that great song—what do you wish it felt like? That you just wish you could nod your head and say, ‘Now’s the time to go into that one’?”
And, “What do you want to say?” For me as an A&R record company guy in a writing situation with an artist, to ask that question: “What is it that you want to say?” And it cannot be, “Whatever it takes to get on radio.” I think that’s the kiss of death.
What has been the biggest challenge at Black River?
The challenge is proving to the town that we can have success as a record company at radio. Because no matter how many people love us, if they don’t feel like we can take their songs and their records all the way, then we’re last on the list of where to shop. So, it’s that challenge of getting the staff right and being in a place where we can start building our foundation and go from there. I think our staff is there now and absolutely great. Gordon Kerr, who is CEO, is just tremendous. He is a music man.
When you’re signing a new artist to Black River, what is the most important consideration? Is it their writing potential, voice or ability to connect with fans?
That “it” factor, which is, as you know, that unique interpretation. Hopefully a great voice but that ability to interpret something in a way that all the sudden, when that that one person sings in a magical way, it grabs your attention. And you’re there inside that song with them, inside that performance.
And then the ability to imagine that person in front of 20,000 people and knowing, while they are wanting to evolve, that they have a true sense of who they are. And they would rather play down on Broadway for the rest of their life than do something else.
And the writing, yes, if they can be part of it. Kelsea Ballerini co-wrote everything on her record and some songs she wrote by herself. If we had to go out and find those songs, I don’t know if we could have. I’m not knocking anyone. We are in a town of some of the greatest songwriters in the world, but those songs are so tailor-made for her. It’s incredible when an artist is a great songwriter.
What is it about new artists that inspires you the most?
There is a beautiful thing in not knowing any better. Rock ‘n’ roll music would not exist if it weren’t for that. Maybe our format wouldn’t exist. It’s like, “Hey, they tell us this is wrong but it feels good to us so we’re going to do it. We’re just going to figure out a way to make it louder.”
Is it incumbent upon the industry to inspire young artists regardless?
I like the word “inspire” but I am not sure if that’s always the case. I think some people will tell somebody something, just so they don’t say something negative. They want to get done with the conversation. and there again, you just have to remember, it’s a betting area. Nobody knows all the answers.
I want to be proud of my failure when I was wrong. I know it sounds weird to say that, but I want it not to be because of the artists or their music, but because it failed some other way. I would make that effort again with that artist, or that writer, or that artist and producer working together. I’d go back and say, “You know what? We did it for the right reasons. Things just aren’t going to happen.” I want to be able to look back and say, “I know why we gave it a shot and why we believed and we won’t ever stop believing. Maybe we couldn’t make it happen here, but we could make it happen somewhere else.” And hopefully we all do really well and live happily ever after.
I heard somebody say this week, “If we focus too much on the results, we paralyze ourselves.” And I think that there’s some truth to that. I think we have to focus on why we’re doing it in the first place, if we really feel like we’re meant to do it.