Nashville, TN (April 16, 2021)—In 2013, a year after graduating from Minnesota State in Mankato, Gena Johnson moved to Nashville to pursue a career as a recording engineer. This year, on Feb. 26, she awoke to the news that she had just become the first woman ever to receive an ACM Award nomination in the Audio Engineer of the Year category.
“I feel very honored and so grateful,” says Johnson, who is nominated alongside Jeff Balding, Jason Hall, Vance Powell and F. Reid Shippen. The winner will be announced during the ACM Honors ceremony in August at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium.
Her first Nashville gig was an internship at Welcome to 1979. “I fixed tape machines and consoles; I learned tons there,” says Johnson, who had worked on two-stroke engines in mechanics class at high school.
Chris Stapleton’s current #1 country song includes shots of Gena Johnson at work (and Dave Cobb and Vance Powell).
Since then, Johnson has built a credit list that includes John Prine, Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, Brandi Carlile and numerous others. “The first number-one I worked on was ‘I Don’t Dance’ by Lee Brice, in 2014,” she says.
Johnson assisted producer Michael Wagener for a time, then freelanced around town at Blackbird, Sound Emporium, House of Blues and elsewhere before landing at RCA. “That studio holds such a place in my heart, working with Ben Folds, who’s incredible, then with Dave Cobb and the massive records he has made there that I’ve gotten to be a part of.”
She recalls working with engineer Ray Kennedy at RCA Studio A on a project with Malcolm Holcombe: “Everybody was out on the floor. The same with Dave Cobb, on Colter Wall and Chris Stapleton sessions. It’s exciting to be able to use the space the way it was intended.”
Johnson got to meet one of her heroes when Dolly Parton was rehearsing at RCA Studio A with The Highwomen. “She took my hand and said, ‘Did you know, in this very room, I recorded ‘I Will Always Love You’ and ‘Jolene’ in the same three-hour session?’ I remember that moment like it was yesterday.”
Johnson engineered Prine’s very last vocal session, for “I Remember Everything,” which recently won him two posthumous Grammys. In 2018, she says, Prine was the first person to record at her new home studio. “We did sessions with him and Kelsey Waldon. That was a great way to christen the studio. I originally put it together for mixing and overdubs, then COVID happened and it turned into a space that could be made safer and sanitized, more of a controlled environment.”
Johnson has encountered a number of other women engineers during her career, she says, readily listing a string of inspiring pros—Sorrel Brigman, Leslie Richter, Lauren Adams, Diana Walsh, Rachael Moore, Raelynn Janicke, Melissa Mattey, Kazuri Arai, Catherine Vericolli, Piper Payne, Shani Ghandi, Kim Rosen, Maria Rice, Jessica Thompson, Eva Reistead, Jessica Tomasin and Jordan Brooke Hamlin. “Our community has only grown stronger and better,” she says.
She is currently mentoring a young female audio student attending Belmont University, and has signed up to provide mentoring with We Are Moving the Needle, mastering engineer Emily Lazar’s equity and inclusion initiative. “I feel like I get to pay back what was offered to me,” she says.
“I not only work with females just because they’re females, but I like to see the same drive that I had in other up-and-coming female engineers. I always want to create a supportive environment for that.”
Johnson has also started working with I Know a Woman, she says, which focuses on creating community and opportunities for women in music and creative sectors while raising funds for global women’s charities. The initiative is also working toward a multi-genre collaborative album written, produced, engineered and mastered by women for International Women’s Day, March 22, 2022.
Women are still a relative rarity in engineering positions—but the talent and drive of the assistant engineer sitting quietly in the corner yet anticipating every need will eventually be seen, she says. “You start being recognized by people because you’ve become an asset, and they want you as part of their team.”
A perfect example is how Johnson became involved in Ashley Monroe’s new album, Rose Gold, which debuts at the end of April. Monroe recorded most of the tracks with a songwriter/producer and others, but reached out to Johnson partway through the production. “She called me and said, ‘I’ve been writing songs that have been so inspiring to me and I can’t stop thinking about you. I’d love to send you the demos and see if you want to mix the record.'” As Monroe kept writing and adding new material, Johnson co-produced some songs with the artist and mixed the entire album. “It became this beautiful record,” says Johnson. “She’s become one of my favorite people to collaborate with.”
Gaining the industry visibility that leads to oppportunities is inherently valuable. In her case, she says, important individuals such as Jason Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires, as well as the Stapletons—Chris and wife and collaborator Morgane—have lifted her up alongside them. “It takes people like that who are humble and real to stand up and lead by example.”