LOS ANGELES — A depressed gorilla walks into a bar. Likes the band he finds there playing to an audience of two: the bartender and one passed-out patron. Dances a happy dance, promptly befriends the lead singer and exits one happy ape.
If that doesn’t sound like much of a punch line, it’s because the scenario is no joke — just the whimsical story line for a music video being shot in Hollywood last week for country singer Jamey Johnson’s forthcoming single “Playing the Part.” The bouncy number is one of 25 songs on the Alabama singer-songwriter’s ambitious new double album, “The Guitar Song,” which entered Billboard’s country albums chart at No. 1 and came in at No. 4 on the overall pop album listing.
For the video, Johnson happily strummed his guitar at one end of the dingy bar near the Hollywood and Highland complex while a fan directed the loopy action for strategically placed cameras — a fan named Matthew McConaughey.
Two years ago at the Academy of Country Music Awards ceremony in Las Vegas, the Texas actor flagged down Johnson’s publicist backstage, begging for an introduction to the rising country maverick. They became friends, to the extent that McConaughey’s longtime girlfriend, Brazilian model-designer Camila Alves, brought Johnson and his band in to play for her husband’s surprise 40th birthday party last year.
“With a lot of artists,” McConaughey said a couple of days after the video shoot, “their art is one thing, and they’re another. (With Johnson) there’s no separation between his music and him. Jamey doesn’t perform, he’s just who he is.”
For Johnson, “I don’t think I could have dreamed anything better,” he said with a reluctant smile after the video shoot had wrapped, giving him a few free minutes to relax on a sofa in the tour bus parked in the alley next to the bar.
Some of the material on “The Guitar Song” traces how much his life has changed in recent years, a transformation that’s turned a struggling songwriter whose personal life was falling apart into an award-laden musician.
“I never thought I’d get to see the inside of a limousine,” he sings in “California Riots,” which he wrote with Lee Thomas Miller. Now, however, he might spend considerable time in one, shuttling from one four-star hotel to the other while attending to the various facets of a still blossoming career as one of country music’s newest stars — a reality he treats with considerable skepticism.
In “Playing the Part,” he marvels at and lampoons the Hollywood lifestyle: “Taking a dip on the Sunset Strip in the morning / Ain’t nothing like the smell of tofu and high-dollar wine.”
Palling around with Hollywood A-listers like McConaughey may still strike Johnson as slightly surreal, but it hasn’t disconnected him from his grounding in the gritty details of working-class reality that he brings to his music. And pleased as he is that “The Guitar Song” is getting such an enthusiastic response from critics and record buyers, he hasn’t forgotten what life was like before “That Lonesome Song” introduced him to a broad national audience.
“How’d the one before that do?” he asked, referring to his 2005 debut album, “The Dollar,” whose heart-tugging title track made it to No. 14 on Billboard’s country singles chart. But after a follow-up single fizzled, his label cut him loose.
“My fans don’t (care) which record is which,” said Johnson. His wild, dark brown hair flows well past his shoulders, and a scraggly beard gives the beefy musician the look of a lost member of ZZ Top or Lynyrd Skynyrd. “They’ve been following us from the beginning, and they’ll follow us till the end. They don’t differentiate by album based on how they do chart-wise. They’re not looking for any measure of (commercial) success. And neither am I…. That works out real well for both of us, don’t it?”
He’s getting no argument from Universal Music Group exec Luke Lewis, who signed Johnson to Universal’s Mercury Nashville division after the singer’s Internet-only version of “That Lonesome Song” got tongues in Music City wagging about him.
His stock rose further after George Strait recorded “Give It Away,” a song Johnson wrote with veteran singer and songwriters Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon that gave Strait his 41st No. 1 hit.
Yet Johnson was still without a contract when he and his band, the Kent Hardly Playboys, began recording the material that ended up on “That Lonesome Song.” He rejected a couple of offers from labels that wanted him to re-record what he’d done before Lewis approached him.
“When Luke told me not to mess with that sound, I repeated to him immediately: ‘Hell, I came here to tell you that.’ We enjoy what we do. Me and the band, we enjoy making music the way we make music today. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t bother doing any of it. There’s nothing else worth bothering with.”
Lewis, who also runs the boutique Lost Highway label that has released critically acclaimed albums by Lucinda Williams, Ryan Bingham, Ryan Adams and many others, said, “I’m a believer in artistic freedom. I just try to figure out ways to get this stuff into the marketplace that makes sense.”
In Johnson, Lewis saw “an incredibly prolific artist, one who is still showing no sign of slowing down.”
Johnson lobbied to put out two CDs’ worth of new music for “those who get what we do,” which is to write about real people grappling with real issues and to sing them in a colorfully evocative voice that’s often been compared to that of Waylon Jennings. Johnson also shares the fierce independence that Jennings, Willie Nelson and their country outlaw brethren exhibited in the ‘70s.
“I subscribe to a famous quote from Willie Nelson: ‘We’re going to keep doing it wrong till we like it that way,’” Johnson said. “We hardly ever do things the way everybody else says they should be done. And that almost works out better for me, because I don’t really (care) how they’ve always been done. If you want us to do it, here’s how we do it.”
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