It’s true what they say: you can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl. In Rachael Johnson’s case, that’s a good thing. A sense of pride exudes from her as she talks about her tiny hometown of Mt. Airy, North Carolina—to which she always amends, “The Original Mayberry,” since it’s the birthplace of Andy Griffith and inspiration for the setting of his 1960’s sitcom—and the influence of this small-town upbringing is apparent in her music.
It was there in Mt. Airy that she first discovered her passion for music. “I’ve been singing probably ever since I was 4 or 5 years old,” she says in a raspy voice she’s becoming known for. And while she performed in talent shows when she was younger, it wasn’t until her parents bought her a guitar that singing became more than just a hobby. “When I turned 16 and got my guitar, that’s when I really found out who I was as an artist and started exploring more original stuff.”
Music wasn’t without competition for her attention, though. After graduating from high school, Johnson went to Chowan University (pronounced Cha-wan) in Murfreesboro, North Carolina on scholarship to play soccer and tennis. Reflecting on those years she says, “Where I’m from, there’s not really a scene for [music]. When you’re not in the music industry, it’s all so far away. Sitting at home in Mt. Airy watching CMT, it’s just like, ‘That would be so awesome.’ And I loved to sing but I never thought about how to get from where I was to where I wanted to be. I have a Criminal Justice degree which I’m not doing anything with right now,” she laughs. “At the time I thought, ‘I’m going to college and get a Criminal Justice degree, and I’m going to be a lawyer.’”
But while she was in college, her friends and family really encouraged her to pursue music. She finished college a semester early in December 2008 and moved to Nashville shortly afterwards. “I didn’t know anybody,” she says. “I spent that Christmas with my family and then I moved out here and just prayed for the best. I got an apartment, and I didn’t have any furniture. I was sleeping on the floor, looking for a job and trying to write songs.”
Her parents’ relocation to Nashville really marked a turning point in her career. Her family purchased The Hall of Fame Lounge—now Pick’s Nashville—and that’s where she got her first exposure. Connections through her dad and the bar introduced her to drummer Derek Smith, bassist Doug Littlejohn, and guitarists Beau Hendrich and Jeff Johnson, who now compose her band.
Her family has also influenced her songwriting. She co-wrote a song about her parents, “Stay By My Side,” with her brother and wrote, “The Pirate Song,” with her dad. “That’s one that [my dad] came up with the lyrics,” she explains. “He said, ‘here’s my idea, here’s the lyrics. Can you put it into a song?’” Her 2009 self-released debut album, There And Now, includes these songs and three other original compositions, including the title track that she wrote with her family about her small-town roots.
Her newest song, “In This Town,” was co-written with Tony Stampley. The song is about Nashville but isn’t without the small town influence present in her earlier work. “Nashville’s a much bigger city, but being in the music industry, networking, it’s really like a big small town. I compare it to a small town in that aspect and I’m able to relate to it when I sit down and write.”
Article by Andrew Miller