JAMEY JOHNSON: On Track

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Country music might qualify as down-home interior monologue, but it rarely works as dreamscape, especially in the well-lit modern era. Jamey Johnson shields himself from the industry’s noontime glare, and the Alabama-born singer and songwriter appears to know something about dreams, and about shadows, too. If his 2006 debut full-length The Dollar skillfully reworked various country and Southern-rock conventions, and showed off Johnson’s baritone voice on material such as “Flying Silver Eagle,” the new That Lonesome Song shifts mood and tone like your basic conflicted work of art.

Country music might qualify as down-home interior monologue, but it rarely works as dreamscape, especially in the well-lit modern era. Jamey Johnson shields himself from the industry’s noontime glare, and the Alabama-born singer and songwriter appears to know something about dreams, and about shadows, too. If his 2006 debut full-length The Dollar skillfully reworked various country and Southern-rock conventions, and showed off Johnson’s baritone voice on material such as “Flying Silver Eagle,” the new That Lonesome Song shifts mood and tone like your basic conflicted work of art.

Recorded in spring 2007 and previously available only as a self-released digital collection (Mercury Nashville signed him early this year). That Lonesome Song functions as concept album and catharsis, but jokes and high times dot the record’s landscape like half-recalled towns and two-bit bars. On The Dollar, Buddy Cannon’s production made for first-rate neoclassicism, while Lonesome Song sports production by “the Kent Hardley Playboys,” whose members include T.W. Cargile, Beau Boggs and J.P. Barker.  It’s a disciplined work that sounds, at times, as if these particular playboys made it all up as they went along.

“The album starts off really dark, and right after that you get an immediate vacation,” Johnson says. That makes sense, since Johnson wrote Lonesome Song as he came out of a troubled period that saw him lose his recording contract with BNA and struggle through a divorce. By this time, Johnson had come a long way from his early days singing demos in Nashville and even further from Enterprise, Ala., where he was born.

“I rented a basement in a friend’s house, ‘bout 800-square-foot-worth,” Johnson says. “I didn’t want 4000 square foot of loneliness. When it came time to write another observation, I’d break out a pencil and jot some things down. My publisher, they were bookin’ me up some writing appointments at the time-nothing too pressing.”

Written by Johnson and James Slater, “High Cost of Living” starts off Lonesome Song with a magically offhand pedal-steel figure that makes an effective bridge with “Released,” the spoken-word piece that begins the record’s narrative. “Released” casts Johnson as prisoner who has done his time. “High Cost” suggests that bad habits and worse thinking put bars around a man’s mind in more insidious ways.

“I had already quit drinkin’,” Johnson says of the period after being let loose from his label. “I didn’t want to be goin’ through that stuff and not be in my right mind…. Not drinking meant that I wasn’t hanging out in the bars, and that meant I went a long time without seeing most of my friends.”

The record’s spare arrangements curl around Johnson’s voice, with modified chicken-picking licks and other subliminal tricks lying in the pocket with twitching hi-hats and organ licks that skitter and percolate.  Like one of Johnson’s avowed models, Waylon Jennings’ 1975 Dreaming My Dreams (two of the record’s songs appear here as reinterpreted by Johnson), Lonesome Song comes across like a first, fortunate thought, even when it’s about dislocation, loneliness and loose women.

“Mowin’ Down the Roses” takes up Johnson’s hell-bent persona as it plays out in real time.  “There’s a point to a relationship where it’s time to crank up the tractor and get this thing over with,” he laughs. “Mowin'” features Johnson at his most subtle, with a distracted vocal turning the experience into something as grimly funny as one of George Jones’ domestic nightmares. That Lonesome Song never turns macabre even when it’s most fraught-and that’s no small achievement for an artist who wants only to emerge out of the shadows and into the light.


Hometown:
Enterprise, Alabama

Age:
32

Favorite songwriter album:
Guy Clark Workbench Songs

I’ve written with Guy a few times and each time has been an education.Sitting there at the workbench where Guy spends his time honing 2 great crafts, songwriting and custom guitar making, Guy showed me the blood-stained thumbprint he stamps on the inside of each guitar he makes. It occurred to me that his songs are stamped the same way. I asked him how much he sells his guitars for and his answer was that, just like his songs, his guitars are not for sale. I believe anyone should consider themselves fortunate to obtain either from him.



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