NASHVILLE, Tennessee -- Inside the Nashville cellar studio of sound engineer Gena Johnson, she has mementos from many of the artists she's helped to document and who have shaped her own career.
A turn of this century upright piano that Ben Folds helped her locate sits alongside the entrance. Polaroids of her and singer Ashley Monroe are scattered on her mixing board, and a sign in the lounge provides a cocktail named Handsome Johnny, a touch vodka drink the late John Prine named after himself.
Johnson works behind the planks in the premiere studios in town, but her very own home studio gets the laid-back comfort of a friend's home with sufficient reminders which Johnson is among the city's top engineers.
However she was still surprised to have awakened with calls one recent afternoon to find out that not only was she nominated for engineer of the year from the Academy of Country Music, she was also the first female scientist to be nominated.
"It seems like I have been seen by my community and that what I've been working for is paying off," said Johnson.
A friend and fan of Prine's for years, she had been in his home to record his very last tune,"I Understand Everything," which got Prine 2 posthumous Grammy Awards this season.
A year after his death against COVID-19 complications, Prine is still a significant part of Johnson's life. She readily recounts funny stories of the witty and wise songwriter, who loved Johnson's miniature Chihuahua mix breed puppy called June. June slept in a tiny doggie bed under Johnson's mixing board while she worked in an upcoming Prine dwell project.
"I really had tears in my eyes if we were recording because it just felt special," Johnson said. "I did not think it had been the previous time that John would record anything."
She then started working with Folds, who was running the historic RCA Studio A on Music Row, where Dolly Parton had cut"Jolene." Afterwards Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb took on the studio and has continued its heritage, together with Johnson by his side for several of the albums he has created, including Stapleton's 2020 album"Starting Over," which is nominated for album of the year at the ACM awards.
Monroe, one third of the nation supergroup Pistol Annies, recalled the first time she showed up at RCA Studio A to record vocals for her 2018 solo album"Sparrow." Johnson had put a very small Zen garden with rocks in the vocal booth for her, together with a fresh bouquet of flowers. The two of them worked for Monroe's upcoming album"Rosegold" coming out on April 30.
"She is just so wise," Monroe said.
Her nomination comes as the music industry has been examining the gender gaps and obstacles to women and people of color. The Recording Academy started an addition initiative in 2019 asking labels, artists and manufacturers to commit to hiring more women due to their own projects. A study by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative discovered that among popular tunes on the Hot 100 Year-End Charts from 2012-2017, just 2.6percent of engineers/mixers were girls, a ratio of 38 men to each one female engineer.
Despite being in a largely male dominated area, Johnson has worked with other female musicians, Leslie Richter and Sorrel Brigman, at RCA Studio A. She's also quick to notice pioneers in the field that came before her, like Trina Shoemaker, the Grammy-winning engineer for Sheryl Crow's 1998 hit record"The Globe Sessions," and Susan Rogers, an engineer who worked for Prince throughout the 1980s.
"It's larger than me because I need to represent in a way and provide space also," said Johnson.
Johnson has been working with and coordinating other brand engineers that are only beginning their careers. Her advice to those younger engineers is to take care of each album they work on like an investment and commit to caring intensely about the songs.
"I am still going to gratify and I am still going to love what I do. It doesn't change who I am," explained Johnson. "And then also at the top of itbeing the first girl feels really great, but in addition, it feels like we've got a lot more work to do."