Fans of traditional country music found a lot to love in Jamey Johnson’s “The Guitar Song” (Mercury Records). The September 2010 release, with its 2-CD “Black Album” and “White Album,” peaked at number 1 on the Billboard country album chart and currently sits at number 28.
Critics and Johnson’s fellow musicians have also embraced the 25-song set. It’s been nominated for a “Best Country Album” Grammy.
Johnson’s prior work includes the 2009 hit, “In Color,” which was nominated for a Grammy and won County Music Association’s Song of the Year.
From the first licks of Keith Whitley’s “Lonely at the Top,” the first cut on “The Black Album,” to the final haunting note of Johnson’s own “My Way to You,” the lower Alabama native proves there’s room for everybody in Nashville.
Johnson’s been hailed as the second coming of Waylon Jennings and the heir apparent to Merle Haggard. His strong vocals and stylings bear similarities to both men, to be sure, but Johnson doesn’t have to stand in anyone’s shadow. He is the real deal and I believe every note he sings.
The legendary Bill Anderson co-wrote the title track, “The Guitar Song,” about a pawn shop guitar with a hundred stories to tell.
Johnson teams with Bobby Bare Sr. and Wayd Battle in the achingly beautiful waltz “Cover Your Eyes.” Johnson’s acoustic guitar and “Cowboy” Eddie Long’s steel guitar lend just the right amount of lonely to the track.
On “Rich Man Blues,” which Johnson wrote, the former Marine talks through the first part of the lyrics, setting the dark mood.
Hank Cochran’s “Set ‘Em Up, Joe” is one of the break-up songs of all time, and Johnson covers it with memories of sawdust and 1951 jukeboxes loaded with “Hank and Lefty and B-24.”
Johnson has mastered the art of the send-up song. In his “Playing the Part,” a sideways look at Los Angeles, where “promises break like an egg on the hot asphalt,” and people resort to “taking depression pills in the Hollywood hills.” Longview native Matthew McConaughey directed the video for this cut.
“California Riots,” on “The White Album,” tells of the singer’s arduous journey from his Southern roots to the glitz and glamour of stardom.
Johnson’s idea of a love song is the hard driving “Macon,” a tune that should be played, with the volume cranked way up, during the final 100 miles of a long road trip.
He had a hit with “Can’t Cash My Checks,” an everyman tune about making a living and staying out of debt. It’s a powerful hymn to the plight of working men and women, especially in this economy. You can take my word, but you can’t cash my checks.
“That’s How I Don’t Love You” begins with a wicked bass lick and has a jazzy feel unusual in a break-up song.
“Thankful for the Rain” and “Good Morning Sunrise” should be required listening for anyone in a bar at closing time. They’re both great “final call” tunes.
Johnson lets his deep country roots shine on the cover of “For the Good Times.” Any doubt about Johnson’s musical leanings will be erased with only one listening of the Kris Kristofferson lyrics made famous by Perryville’s own Ray Price.
“Heartache” is more of a threat than a song.
‘Cause I’m a heartache
Never see me coming
I’ll always take you by surprise
I’m a heartache
Hungry and hunting
For someone I can eat alive
By the time you know I’m on you, buddy,
It’s too late.
I’m a heartache.
Johnson stays on the dark side with a rich, layered cover of Mel Tillis’ “Mental Revenge.” It’s obvious Johnson’s heart has been stomped on and he’s plotted some pretty serious paybacks. You can’t sing songs like this without having been there.
“Even the Skies are Blue” is perhaps the best example of what Johnson can do with a pen and a piece of paper.
These are sad times
World gone made times
Men doing bad times
Lord, what is this world coming to
Between religion and wars
Drugs and divorce
It seems the whole world is fighting
The sun might be shining
But even the skies are blue
Johnson takes his fans to the Delta with “By the Seat of Your Pants,” a teaching song about lessons learned the hard way, and he celebrates country living on “Front Porch Swing Afternoon.”
“Lonely at the Top” and “That’s Why I Write Songs” are autobiographical tunes that explain why Johnson does what he does.
You fell in love
You threw it away
You’re looking for that perfect thing to say
You’re no good with words
That’s why I write songs.
“The Guitar Song” is not all honky tonks, bad guys and the blues, however. When he turns his hand to a gentle ballad like “Heaven Bound,” Johnson can melt a heart of stone.
He turns tender and sentimental in the lullaby “Baby Don’t Cry” – and he makes it work.
According to all reports, Johnson fought to release “The Guitar Song,” while his record label pushed for a more “commercial” CD. Johnson won the battle – and country music is all the better for it. In the era of slickly produced records, dime-a-dozen lyrics and overwrought performances, Johnson’s laid back, pared down approach to the music is a breath of clean, rare, fresh country air.
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