It started with her grandfather Oscar Anderson's reel-to-reel machine, which he used for recording church hymns at home in Mankato.
On Sunday, Gena Johnson's childhood fascination with recording equipment is taking her all the way to the Academy of Country Music Awards in Nashville — and maybe into the history books, too.
Johnson, 31, is the first woman ever nominated as best audio engineer in the ACM Awards. The nomination caps off what has already clearly been several winning years working in the studio with such big-name acts as Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, Ashley Monroe and the late John Prine.
"This nomination is definitely bigger than I am," Johnson, 31, said by phone from Nashville on Friday between mixing sessions for upcoming records by Isbell and Prine.
"I recognize I don't stand alone, and it has a lot to do with the amazing people I've been lucky enough to be working next to."
Johnson even engineered the recording session at Prine's home last spring for the Grammy-winning song "I Remember Everything," just two weeks before the cult-adored singer died from COVID-19.
"It was breathtaking," she said. "Little did we know it would be the last thing he recorded."
An aspiring singer who got her start in Mankato's Grace Lutheran Church choir, Johnson was studying music at Minnesota State University Mankato a decade ago when she learned of a program at Hennepin Technical College that teaches audio engineering. So she attended the schools simultaneously.
"Everyone at HTC is incredibly proud of Gena," said Hennepin Tech faculty member Matt Holmes, who remembered that Johnson "impressed us with her tenacity and her passion."
But she did not fully realize how rare it was for women to work as audio engineers — the technical gurus who operate recording machinery and fine-tune studio acoustics.
Some of her favorite artists happened to be ones who employed women in that pivotal role, including Prince, who famously worked with Susan Rogers on his heyday '80s albums; and Sheryl Crow, who recorded with Trina Shoemaker.
"There are a lot of women before me I looked up to," Johnson said, "not necessarily because they were women, but more because they just worked on some great albums."
"Once I figured out I could maybe make a career out of engineering, I really dug in."
She relocated to Nashville in 2012 soon after her graduation(s). Among her earliest jobs were work with singer Ben Folds, producer/engineer Michael Wagener (Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne) and at the legendary RCA Studio A on Music Row.
Studio A is now owned by Dave Cobb, producer for many of the recent records Johnson engineered, including Stapleton's "Starting Over" — up for best album at Sunday's ACM Awards — and the acclaimed Pistol Annies album "Interstate Gospel."
Pistol Annies singer Ashley Monroe told the Associated Press of Johnson, "She's just so wise. She cares about the words, the songs."
One important detail Johnson isn't wise to, though: exactly when she'll find out whether she won the engineering award. Because of COVID-19 crowd limitations, only major categories will be announced from the Ryman Auditorium on Sunday night. Another ceremony is being planned for other winners at a tentative later date.
"Normally, we'd be all celebrating together," Johnson said. "But I'm fine with celebrating at home, too."
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658