If you’re much under 40 you may not remember when a black and white photo wasn’t created by computer manipulation, but there was a time when that was as good as it got. As the writers of “In Color,” Jamey Johnson, James Otto and Lee Thomas Miller metaphorically compared black and white to the colors of real life with insinuation more than actual declaration.
“In Color” was both a critical and a commercial success for country singer Johnson from his 2008 album That Lonesome Song, and this was one time when the critics and the public both got it right. The song revolves around a man telling his life story to his grandson (the singer), who has questions about grandpa’s old pictures, which are all in black and white. Grandpa explains the backgrounds behind the photos of his childhood, his Air Force wartime service, and his wedding day, and those three respective verses are tied together with the common lines:
If it looks like we were scared to death
Like a couple of kids just trying to save each other
You should’ve seen it in color.
The song’s construction, when compared to something like a standard AABA, is a little out of the ordinary, but it works well. While the song’s three verses are linked by the lines above, the second and third verses have a couple additional lines as well. Some may consider the common lines to be a chorus, but it’s quite a stretch to call them that, especially when they’re followed by more text. This is also probably the only hit song that has ever successfully rhymed “eleven” with “depression.”
Miller, who is the current president of the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), recalled the writing of the song in an interview in Jake Brown’s book Nashville Songwriter. “[Jamey] was just writing songs, he was not [yet] an artist,” Miller said. “So it was during that time period that we wrote that song, and I thought it was good … we spent a long time talking about our grandfathers, who were in WWII, and so when I hear that song on the radio, I think about my grandfather, so there’s realness to that.”
Johnson himself told Roughstock’s Matt Bjorke that his grandfather did indeed play a role in the song. “I like the first song from this album in particular, starting off with looking through pictures with my grandfather,” he said, referring to the single as being the first release from That Lonesome Song. “I’ve always wanted to pay tribute back to thank him for the lessons growing up, all the conversations with him. Nobody ever pays attention to that stuff until they’re gone I’m afraid … So it’s kind of [an] appropriate way to introduce this album to the public.”
“In Color” was named Song of the Year by both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association, and it launched Johnson’s career as an artist. It was also recorded by Trace Adkins, who actually had planned to release it, but Johnson’s version hit radio first when he got his record deal. Adkins included his version, in a different key and with different production than Johnson’s, as an iTunes exclusive bonus track on his 2008 album, X.