|Lead Me Home||The Dollar|
|High Cost Of Living||That Lonesome Song|
|In Color||That Lonesome Song|
|The Door Is Always Open||That Lonesome Song|
|Set 'Em Up Joe||The Guitar Song|
|Thankful For The Rain||The Guitar Song|
|Good Morning Sunrise||The Guitar Song|
|Front Porch Swing Afternoon||The Guitar Song|
|Make The World Go Away||Living For A Song ...|
|This Ain't My First Rodeo||Living For A Song ...|
Contributor: Andrew Shields
Jamey Johnson is one of a handful of contemporary country songwriters whose music has the same kind of directness, emotional honesty and candour which characterised the work of the great songwriters in the genre in the past such as Hank Williams or Merle Haggard. Along with a small group of like-minded artists including Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and J.P. Harris, he injected a new and much-needed vitality into a type of music which was becoming increasingly bland and formulaic. While all of these songwriters shared a deep respect for the pioneers of country music in the 1950s and early 1960s, in their own work they displayed a willingness to incorporate influences from outside the genre which gave it a freshness and verve that many of their contemporaries lacked. In Johnson’s case, these outside influences included those derived from his early fondness for ‘Southern’ rock and country rock acts like the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Alabama.
Within the country fold, however, Johnson’s key influences came from ‘outlaw’ country artists like Willie Nelson and Billie Joe Shaver and from their Bakersfield contemporaries, in particular Merle Haggard. In terms of his approach to singing, Johnson also owed a particular debt to one of the earliest of the ‘outlaw’ stars, Waylon Jennings. Indeed, he is among the handful of contemporary country singers (Sturgill Simpson is another) who can successfully emulate Jennings’ gravelly and lived-in vocal style.
In his excellent Toppermost on Waylon, Dave Stephens has described the ‘outlaw’ approach as being based on a “rebellion against the Nashville way of doing things”. As Stephens points out, the ‘outlaws’ of the early 1970s were particularly opposed to the Nashville establishment’s “absolute insistence on the usage of [outside] support musicians, arrangers and usually staff producers”. In effect, this had meant that up to then, country music stars had generally recorded with professional backing musicians. They had also been dictated to by producers and record executives whose primary focus was on the commercial potential of the material that they recorded. This process had, as Dave points out, “led to a very high level of professionalism in the genre” while “at the same time” leading to “many of the rough edges that made such music attractive in the first place” being removed.
By contrast, Waylon and Willie and the other leaders of the new movement were determined to record with musicians of their own choosing. They also leaned towards a much more minimalist style of musical backing than was then the norm in Nashville. In particular, they were determined to shed the sometimes cheesy backing singers and massed string arrangements which had been the hallmark of ‘countrypolitan’ Nashville record producers such as Billy Sherrill. In this way, they hoped to return to the simplicity and directness of the early days of the genre. Along with this pared back sound, the outlaws were also keen to return to a more hard-edged depiction of real life situations in their songs. They also proved keen to shed the (at least outwardly) conformist and ‘square’ lifestyles and appearance which had been associated with the leading Nashville stars of their day.
While both Waylon and Willie had, in fact, spent a good deal of time working within the Nashville system, both had decisively broken free of it by the mid-to-late 1970s. As we shall see, the sound which they developed at that time was to be a crucial influence on Johnson’s own later work. Throughout his career Jamey has frequently acknowledged the debt he owed to these great pioneers of the ‘outlaw’ sound. However, through his upbringing in Alabama, he was also deeply steeped in the music of many of the country artists of the 1950s and 1960s. Among those who were most important in his later musical development were Hank Williams, Vern Gosdin (the latter two both came from his home state) and George Jones. As a result, while he was often willing to incorporate influences from outside the genre into his music, Johnson remained essentially a traditionalist at heart.
Johnson’s own professional musical career began when he moved to Nashville in the early 2000s, after completing an eight-year stint as a mortarman in the US marines. Indeed, he had already begun writing songs while in the army and had occasionally played them for his fellow soldiers. Following his move to Nashville, he began to pitch his songs to some of the more established names there. Among those who recorded some of these early numbers were mainstream country artists like Trace Adkins and Joe Nichols. By far the best of these early efforts, however, was the song Give It Away which was a hit on the country charts for George Strait. (A clip of Johnson himself singing the song with Lee Ann Womack can be seen here.) Perhaps the best tribute to Johnson in relation to that song came from Merle Haggard, who said he was jealous of him for having written it. For Haggard, Johnson was the “first [songwriter] to come along in a long spell” who had the ability to write in such an emotionally honest and direct way.
This relative success as a songwriter also led the Nashville record label, BNA, to sign Johnson to a recording contract in 2005. In the following year he released The Dollar, his first and only album for that label. While the album was a fine showcase for Johnson’s excellence as a country singer and it included some fine songs, there were a few numbers on it which veered uncomfortably close towards what has been described as ‘Bro-Country’. This genre involved artists adopting a kind of affected cheerfulness while singing material which dealt almost exclusively with partying and drinking beer. At its worst, ‘Bro-Country’ also incorporated a bland imitation of some of the worst elements in American hard-rock and hip-hop music.
While Jamey Johnson never reached this level of inane awfulness, songs like Rebelicious and Redneck Side Of Me which appeared on The Dollar were not really worthy of someone of his talent. On the positive side, the album also contained fine songs like It Was Me and My Saving Grace which were far more indicative of the type of quality which would be the hallmark of his later work. My selection from the album, however, is Lead Me Home, an excellent country-gospel song which features one of his finest ever vocal performances.
Johnson himself later admitted that he had been unhappy with the way in which the album was produced and with the way in which his own songs had been side-lined while it was being made. However, its relative commercial success did give him the freedom to exert far more influence over the character of the next album. This scope for greater autonomy was further increased when he was let go by BNA after the second single from The Dollar, Rebelicious, failed to make the charts. Over the following year, Johnson’s personal life also took a turn for the worse with the break-up of his marriage and a gradual descent into some of the personal problems associated with the ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ lifestyle. As many other artists have found, this turbulent period in Johnson’s life inspired him to embark on an intense period of writing songs. During this time he produced what were by far the most consistently excellent body of work he had written up to that point.
This lack of record company backing, however, had the unintended consequence of allowing Johnson the freedom to produce the 2008 album, That Lonesome Song, free from the usual constraints which such support entailed. As a result, it was far less slickly produced than The Dollar and had a much more rootsy sound. The lack of outside pressures also meant that he was able to be far more uncompromising in the subject matter of his lyrics than he had been in his earlier work. In a sense, this meant that he found himself in a very similar position to that in which the earlier ‘outlaw’ artists had been. By necessity, he found himself opposed to the Nashville establishment of the day, even if this was a very different entity to that which the earlier movement had challenged.
From the very first track on That Lonesome Song, High Cost Of Living, it was clear that Johnson’s songwriting had reached a new level of excellence. The song clearly demonstrated his mastery of compression and ability to deal with complex issues in a remarkably concise way. It was also a brave track in many respects, in that it is one of the very few modern country songs to deal honestly with the subject of drug addiction. There is a non-judgmental air to it as well, which is comparatively rare in the genre.
The next selection, In Color, is a fine example of Johnson’s ability to take a classic country scenario (the old-timer telling a younger relative about his life) and to imbue it with a new lease of life. The framing device for the song in which the older man tells his life story through looking at a series of black and white photographs, is also a remarkably effective and moving one. In the song Johnson also clearly shows his superb ability to tread the fine line between sentimentality and genuine pathos.
My next choice, The Door Is Always Open, is one of two covers of songs closely associated with Waylon Jennings on the album. The other, Dreaming My Dreams, is almost equally good and came very close to being included. In the end I opted for The Door Is Always Open as it manages to balance a respect for Waylon’s version of the song with a determination on Johnson’s part to leave his own mark on it. Generally speaking, though, the entire CD is so strong that I could have included almost any of the tracks in this list. Its obvious quality meant, however, that while Johnson initially released the album as an independent venture and as a digital release only, it soon drew the attention of record label executives across America. Eventually, Mercury Records signed him to a recording contract and bought the rights to the album, which was then officially released under their imprint.
This marked a major turning point in Jamey Johnson’s career, a change in fortunes which was further confirmed when In Color became the biggest hit of his career to date. This commercial success (the song reached No.9 on the country chart) was combined with critical acclaim, with Johnson now being recognised as one of the very best (if not the very best) of his generation of country songwriters.
This reputation was further confirmed with the release of his next album, The Guitar Song, in 2010. It was an ambitious double album, which was organised around two contrasting CDs, the ‘white’ and the ‘black’. Broadly speaking the concept behind this lay, Johnson claimed, in tracing the path of the central character in the songs through his reaching rock-bottom in his personal life to his eventual achievement of a new equilibrium and a renewed sense of purpose in his life. In this sense, the album had an internal unity which its predecessors had lacked and this fact made it difficult to select individual tracks from it for inclusion.
My first choice is Johnson’s heartfelt cover version of Set ˈEm Up Joe which was first recorded by the great Alabama-born singer, Vern Gosdin. The poignant quality of the song itself is further reinforced by the fact that Johnson recorded this version on the day after Gosdin died. As such, it is a fitting tribute from one of the genre’s young Turks (as it were) to one of the giants of the preceding era. The next three selections display Johnson’s superb skills as a singer of country ballads. The first two, Thankful For The Rain and Good Morning Sunrise, are classic ‘hurting’ country songs which Johnson sings with a fine combination of subtlety and delicacy. The third, Front Porch Swing Afternoon, is a beautifully crafted piece of country nostalgia.
Reflecting his respect for country music tradition, Johnson’s next recording venture was a tribute to the great but under-appreciated songwriter, Hank Cochran. With Harlan Howard, Cochran had been responsible for writing some of Patsy Cline’s finest songs, while he had also provided hits for other country artists including Ray Price, Eddy Arnold, Vern Gosdin and Merle Haggard. Johnson had befriended him after moving to Nashville and had been strongly influenced by his raw and emotionally direct songwriting style. Their friendship meant that, following Cochran’s death in July 2010, Johnson was determined to make an album which would celebrate his brilliance as a country songwriter. To do so, he drew together a stellar cast of artists who themselves had either been friends or collaborators of Cochran himself. This group included artists of the stature of Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Kris Kristofferson.
There was, of course, also a possibility that such an album could misfire or that it could be a mawkish and overly reverential piece of work. In the event, Living For A Song: A Tribute To Hank Cochran avoided such pitfalls and proved to be one of the finest tribute albums to be recorded in recent times. Its success lay principally in Johnson’s combination of a deep respect for Cochran’s music with his willingness to interpret it in his own distinctive way. He also extended this freedom to interpret the songs in their own way to the other artists who appeared on the album. The success of this approach can be seen in my two selections from Living For A Song. The first of these, Make The World Go Away, is a brilliant reinterpretation by Johnson and Alison Krauss of a classic Cochran song which had previously been a hit for both Ray Price and Eddy Arnold. The second, This Ain’t My First Rodeo, is one of Cochran’s wittiest songs and the spirited and sassy interplay between Johnson and Lee Ann Womack brings this out extremely well.
Since then, however, Johnson has had contract difficulties with Mercury records, which ultimately led to his leaving the label in 2012. He then formed his own independent label, Big Gassed records, and has released a small amount of music through it, including a Christmas-themed EP. The best of these sporadic releases was the fine single, Alabama Pines, another superbly well-crafted nostalgic song. It can be heard here. Its quality, however, only makes it more apparent that it has been far too long since Jamey Johnson released an album’s worth of original material. Hopefully, though, 2017 may see some new activity on that front from this mercurial, unpredictable, but at his best, supremely talented songwriter.
Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs …