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Jamey Johnson: The Insider’s Outsider

Jamey Johnson photo courtesy of UMG Nashville.

By Robert K. Oermann
© 2011 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

Jamey Johnson has a way of defying our expectations. At a time when it is harder than ever to sell full-length albums relative to single digital tracks, he has followed his Mercury Nashville Gold-certified That Lonesome Song with a double album. The Guitar Song contains 25 songs and demands more than an hour of a listener’s attention – yet in September it debuted at the top of the Country chart and at No. 4 on the all-genre Billboard Top 200.

The music video for his anti-Hollywood song “Playing the Part,” written by Johnson and Shane Minor, was filmed in Hollywood and directed by actor Matthew McConaughey. And though at the top of his game as a Country songwriter and record producer, Johnson has also taken a left turn to produce a gospel album for the legendary Blind Boys of Alabama.

“The first time we met was onstage when we went to do a show for the Alabama Hall of Fame down in Montgomery,” Johnson recalled. “We were going to sing ‘Down by the Riverside’ together that night, so we came for a sound check. I met them onstage, singing with them. “I don’t know exactly what the right words would be to describe the experience,” he continued. “But it gave me an incredible awareness of self. I don’t feel like I had the right perspective before. People like that, the only way they can respond to you is through music. It was so moving.”

Interested initially in providing material to the group, Johnson learned from their manager that they were more concerned at that point with finding a producer for the album. In short order, the two-time CMA Song of the Year winner (“In Color,” “Give It Away”) was onboard and involved in an experience that would broaden the experiences of his first contact with the Blind Boys, from teaching them lyrics by speaking each line, preacher-style, for them to sing back in harmony, to going out for a night on the town with Jimmy Carter, a member of the group.

“I took him over to ‘see’ Tootsies and even got him up onstage, where he did a couple of songs,” Johnson said. “Then we went over to see Vince Gill and The Time Jumpers over at The Station Inn. They had Jimmy get up and do a couple of Country songs with them.” Gill, along with George Jones, The Oak Ridge Boys and Lee Ann Womack, is among the Country luminaries Johnson recruited to guest on the Blind Boys album.

Johnson is also working in the studio with Erin Enderlin, who co-wrote Alan Jackson’s “Monday Morning Church” and Lee Ann Womack’s “Last Call.” And he continues to produce his own work with his band, The Kent Hardly Playboys, adhering to the “old-school” approach he applies to much of his music, even including the vinyl medium he prefers for listening — and, in the case of both That Lonesome Song and The Guitar Song, recording as well. The three-LP vinyl set contains a deluxe lyric and picture booklet.

“My favorite way to listen to music is on vinyl LPs,” he said. “The jacket of The Guitar Song album tells the story of how a vinyl record is made, in pictures. You see the pellets that they turn into liquid form. You see the liquid vinyl that then goes over and gets stamped on the machine press. Even the CD version of the album tells the vinyl story.”

Johnson’s story begins outside of Montgomery, Ala., near the tiny community of Enterprise. Everybody in his family played Country and gospel music. He picked up the guitar at 10 and learned how to pick Alabama’s “My Home’s in Alabama.” His mother owned every Alabama album, and a concert by the group was the first show he ever attended.

Fellow Alabamans Vern Gosdin and Hank Williams were other family favorites. Johnson’s new album contains his version of “Set ’Em Up Joe,” written by Gosdin, Buddy Cannon, Hank Cochran and Dean Dillon and recorded by Johnson as a tribute the day after the singer’s death in 2009.

As a youngster, he and his friends visited Williams’ grave on a hill above Montgomery to sing the legend’s songs. One night, he dropped his guitar on the tombstone and splintered its bottom. The instrument, dubbed “Ol’ Maple,” bears that scar to this day, as well as the autographs of many of its owner’s heroes, including Bill Anderson, John Anderson, Bobby Bare, Cannon, Cochran, Jessi Colter, Teddy Gentry, Merle Haggard, Jones, George Strait, Randy Travis, Travis Tritt and Womack.

“It’s meant a lot to me over the years,” Johnson said. “It’s the guitar I’ve written most of my songs on and done most of my shows on. The first signature I got on it was in 1998. It was Willie Nelson. But the years of pulling it in and out of the case rubbed that off. I just knew I was never going to see Willie Nelson again. I was distraught about it. Well, I got to do Farm Aid a couple of years ago. I took the guitar over to Willie’s bus to go meet Willie again. When we sat down, I told him that he was the first one that ever signed this guitar and it was gone and explained why. So instead of signing it on the top, he signed it down low. He wrote ‘Willie Nelson 2008’ right there.”

There’s one more signature that Johnson hopes to restore to the collection. “I had Kenny Rogers’ autograph going across the top, but that’s where my arm goes when I play, so I rubbed that off of there,” he said. “So I’ve got to go and find Kenny Rogers again at some point.”

After launching his career in the clubs of Montgomery, quitting college in the wake of his sophomore year and spending eight years in the Marine Corps Reserve, Johnson moved to Nashville on Jan. 1, 2000, the so-called “Y2K” day. “That was the day the planes were supposed to come crashing down and the computers were all going to be dead,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Well, if the world is going to Hell, I’m going to Nashville to sing about it.’”

The singing didn’t start right away. Johnson ran his own construction company from 2001 through 2004, specializing in restoring buildings after natural disasters. Eventually he did start singing at songwriter gatherings, which led to his becoming an in-demand demo singer. Producer Buddy Cannon began working with him. But it wasn’t until his discovery by EMI Music Publishing that his music career truly began.

“Every day I have this job, I thank the Lord that a guy named Arlis Albritton brought this guy named Jamey Johnson to me,” said Tom Luteran, VP, A&R, EMI Music Publishing. “Jamey just had that voice. After I heard him, I was bouncing off the wall. That was in the summer of 2004. We don’t usually make instant decisions, but in his case I knew I wanted to sign him right then and there.”

Thanks to that reference from EMI staff songwriter Albritton, Johnson followed a quick trajectory from his first album, The Dollar, released in 2006 and produced by Cannon, to the work that many now hail as his masterpiece. The Guitar Song comes on two discs, one labeled “Black” and filled with dark, somber material, and the other “White,” featuring what Johnson terms “redemptive” songs. Both convey a rebellious, “outsider” quality, yet two of their most striking songs are reminders of Johnson’s history of working with mainstream, even commercial writers: the chillingly aggressive “Heartache,” written with Rivers Rutherford, and the title tune, told from the viewpoint of two forgotten guitars hanging on a pawnshop wall, which Johnson wrote and recorded with Whisperin’ Bill Anderson.

The “Black” songs include the combative “Can’t Cash My Checks” (written by Johnson, Jason Cope, James Otto, Shannon Lawson), the sadly bluesy “Even the Skies Are Blue” (Johnson, Rivers Rutherford) and the threatening, Johnson self-penned “Poor Man Blues.” The lighter, “White” songs are highlighted with the lulling “Front Porch Swing Afternoon” (Johnson, Dean Miller), the rocking “Good Times Ain’t What They Used to Be” (Johnson, Dallas Davidson, Jim McCormick), the sexy “Macon” (Johnson, Kacey Coppola) and the highly autobiographical “That’s Why I Write Songs” (Johnson, Chris DuBois, Ashley Gorley).

Johnson is a lover of classic Country sounds, and he regularly performs oldies in his stage shows. The Guitar Song contains his versions of Kris Kristofferson’s For the Good Times,” Mel Tillis’ “Mental Revenge” and “Lonely at the Top,” a previously undiscovered gem co-written by the late Keith Whitley, with Don Cook and Chick Raines.

For all the acclaim stirred by The Guitar Song, Johnson’s recordings aren’t what matters most to him. “The records are almost a means to an end,” Luteran observed. “He’s all about playing for the people. From Day One, it has always been about the shows for Jamey. It doesn’t matter if it’s a stadium or a 50-seat club. He was meant to do this. It’s scary to have the amount of talent he has. I’m just happy to be a part of it.”

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