In concert last year in Kansas City, Jamey Johnson played a regular set of his own songs, then left the stage and returned for a second set that started with him proclaiming that he and opening act Randy Houser were going to get drunk and play country music, and he didn’t care who left or stayed. The lengthy set that followed revealed Johnson’s idea of a drunken party to be less rowdy than you might expect. It was two guys kicking back and playing dour, heartbreaking old country songs, slowly and earnestly.
Though it’s mostly original songs, Johnson’s third album The Guitar Song, a double LP, is entirely in that mold. He’s in that same relaxed mode. Its 25 songs each take a while to end and begin. He lets the musicians play on. There’s a thick, colorful atmosphere of guitar, piano, steel guitar, and more. Some songs go for high drama (“Macon”, “My Way to You”, “Heartache”), though always with an intimate tenderness within. The overall scope of the album is grounded enough to leaven the most histrionic moments, human enough to lighten the consistent intensity of Johnson’s worldview. For a double LP, it’s not trying too hard to make one grand statement, not screaming out its own importance.
For all its ease, The Guitar Song has a real sense of purpose to it. The songs, split into a “Black” album and a “White” album, are arranged around a concept with personal, historic, societal, and spiritual components: the struggle to make your way in this mean world, to move from darkness into the light. That concept isn’t overstated at all, rather moving forward subtly. The focus is on the songs themselves.
To some extent Jamey Johnson made his name as a songwriter, co-writing hit songs for Trace Adkins, Joe Nichols, and George Strait (“Give It Away”, co-written with Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon, hit #1 for Strait in 2006). Yet it was his second album, 2008’s That Lonesome Song, that really brought his name and bearded face in front of mainstream country audiences. A collection of tough, Waylon Jennings-and-George Jones-inspired country songs about divorce, addiction, and other struggles, it was adored by critics and propelled one song, the ballad “In Color”, up the radio charts. In 2009, it won Song of the Year awards at both the Academy of Country Music awards and the Country Music Association awards. Johnson’s challenge on The Guitar Song, then, is partly to show that he can make more than one impressive album, that he has what it takes to really carve out a long-lasting career in country music. He’s taken up that challenge and run with it, delivering 25 songs that continue in the same vein as That Lonesome Song, but push even further to solidify and expand on that sound.
That Lonesome Song referenced Jennings multiple times, and his brand of rebellious and heartbreaking country music is a good starting reference point for Johnson’s music. He’s emulating Jennings and others, but this is not hollow imitation. He’s trying to write and sing as good as his idols, to write as good as Harlan Howard and sing as good as Jennings. On The Guitar Song, he throws in some reverent and sometimes revelatory takes on country ‘classics’. He does the Kris Kristofferson-penned Ray Price hit “For the Good Times”, Vern Gosdin"s “Set Em Up Joe” (itself a tribute to country classics, written by Gosdin with Cannon, Dean Dillon, and the recently, dearly departed Hank Cochran), Mel Tillis’ “Mental Revenge” (also sung by Jennings), and the unreleased Keith Whitley song “Lonely at the Top”, which opens the album.
The title track, a duet with Bill Anderson that takes the guitars hanging in a shop window and gives them voices, suggests the way music carries on across the years, from person to person and generation to generation, a theme too of That Lonesome Song. “That’s Why I Write Songs” references Anderson, Howard, Cochran, and others as Johnson tries to capture the meaning that songs have for people in their lives, while paying tribute to the less-famous songwriters behind them. Throughout The Guitar Song, Johnson is making it clear where he gets his inspiration, what lineage he wants to be part of, while also doing his best to follow in their footsteps. He does all of these things well. It’s a testament to his songwriting that the classic songs blend in with his own songs, that a song like “Even the Skies Are Blue” seems like it could have been written decades ago.
On The Guitar Song, Johnson builds a rich setting which conjures up images of clouds, sun, rain, and sky; of front porches, trains, and farmland; of the distressed faces of lovers at their wit’s end, of a cowboy wandering around a city where he doesn’t fit in. Johnson is working with epic themes of life, even more so than on his last LP. There are many human struggles within these songs, from the personal (finding your place in the world) and interpersonal (building and maintaining relationships) to the societal (economic troubles, social discontent). All are tackled with a prickly defiance, a searching and questioning approach that continually sets him up as a solitary outsider figure, analyzing what’s going on in the world and in himself.
Both albums have songs that put him in Los Angeles, trying to fit in and then hating himself for doing so. While “Playing the Part” gets in some sarcastic joke-lines like “ain’t nothing like the smell of tofu and high-dollar wine” over its pleasant rolling melody, it also carries a heavy weight of melancholy and nostalgia. The looser, darker “California Riots” is a close companion piece that also has as its backdrop the American story of the haves and have-nots. “Where you gonna be when half of California riots?,” he asks. His real question is where does he want to live when the apocalypse comes. His answer is where he feels at home, in his case, Alabama.
The social discontent there is also part of “Poor Man Blues”, a song about economic disparity that is also a defiant anthem for those on the losing end (“Son, you’d better watch your back when a poor man gets the blues”). The personal discontent in the California songs stretches across the album, but with a movement towards resolution. On the “Black” album, he’s singing of heartbreak and lonely nights, of easing back into a world of pain, and of trying to stay himself in a world of fakers. In “Can’t Cash My Checks”, he declares, “It’s so hard to stay honest in a world that’s headed to Hell.” The final song on the “Black” album, “Even the Skies Are Blue” is an open-sky ballad of numbness to the evils of the world. “These are sad times / The world gone mad times,” he declares. It’s a gorgeous song, but there is no hope here. Everyone has stopped even trying to make things better: “Our daddies quit staying / And our mammas quit praying / Even the children quit trying.”
On the “White” album, there is still the sense that people are mistreating each other and guessing their way through this life, but the songs also present forces that can keep us going: mainly music, love, home, and belief. On the bittersweet but beautiful ballad “Thankful for the Rain”, our protagonist is suffering but trying to look for the silver lining. “I Remember You”, a dialogue with God, presents faith as that ray of light, but in no simplistic way. Faith, like everything, is an intense struggle. “Good Times Ain’t What They Used to Be” and “Front Porch Swing Afternoon” both find the singer taking comfort in the simpler pleasures of life, in his surroundings and all of the memories they conjure up. In the latter song, he sings, “I can hear music from somewhere inside / The faint sound of a Hank Williams tune / I just caught the smell of a blackberry pie / On this old front porch swing afternoon.” That’s such a vivid scene, and yet so representative of Johnson’s worldview, the way he wraps up emotions inside images, be they happy or sad. In its way, those lines about blackberry pie strike just as mightily as the pain-filled lyrics of last album’s “The High Cost of Living”, where he sang about trading his good life in for “cocaine and a whore.”
The album’s emotional journeys all come to a head on the final track, “My Way to You”, which presents the notion that all of the wrong turns and bad decisions were stumbling blocks on a journey towards something greater. The song itself is big and bold; when released as a single earlier in the year, it seemed almost overwrought, but, in this climate, it presents the catharsis for the entire album. All of the pain he’s been singing about is released in one fell swoop, as a statement of devotion to an unspecified “you”, most likely a higher power, but it also could be another human or even an idea. That he reaches this release while still describing so vividly the rough-and-tumble life (“There’s been times I couldn’t tell if I’m living a good life / Or living a bad life / ‘Cause I’m always living fast as hell”) is part of his personality as a songwriter. It’s also part of the power of The Guitar Song. He takes us so viscerally through the darkness that the hopeful moments ring more true.
It will be interesting to see how successfully country radio can mine this double album for hits. There is no clear “In Color, Part 2” here, but potential hit songs (and beyond that, potential classic songs) are here in abundance. The Guitar Song quite firmly cements Johnson’s place at the forefront of today’s country music songwriters, performers, and singers. The fact that he had the courage to put out a 25-song album after achieving some success is not as significant as the courage he had to keep following his vision of what country music can and should be.