It seems an inevitable arc: the more one album swells with ambition, the more the next will either try to outdo it or take refuge in an opposite place. When you hit your most ambitious, even overblown point, your next album will be a modest affair; you can almost bet on it.
This is that modest affair, coming after the two-cd The Guitar Song, which took the solitary-man-playing-lonely-music theme of That Lonesome Song and blew it up to widescreen. So now Jamey Johnson is not trying to make a big statement, not trying to do everything at once, but choosing one more leisure-time pursuit and having fun with it. Now, fun for Johnson is different than a lot of people’s fun, as evidenced by his live shows, which at the end often veer into a good hour-plus party set – that is, if your idea of a party is to play sad, old country songs at half-speed; each one sadder and slower than the one before. These sets, and much of The Guitar Song, play high tribute to not just country performers of the past but country songwriters of the past. Here he’s taken one of his favorites, Hank Cochran, and brought along a gang of fellow musicians to sing them with him. That group includes a lot of Johnson’s idols, from one generation (Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Bobby Bare, Leon Russell, etc) and the next (George Strait, Vince Gill, Ronnie Dunn), plus some singers always game for a duet (Allison Krauss, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris).
Johnson always has one eye on country’s past, and one song’s lyric here could be his credo: “it’s not healthy they say to relive yesterday / but for me it’s a way to survive.” Of course, the song itself is about love/heartbreak/regret, as are most of these songs. The songs themselves are rightly classics, articulating sad sentiments that are part of the lifeblood of country music: “I Fall to Pieces”, “Make the World Go Away”, “Love Makes a Fool of Us”. Women leave men, men are haunted or comforted by their memories, and then approach others with clever but sad come-ons (“Would These Arms Be In Your Way?”). When men aren’t sulking, they puff up their chests and present an image of been-around-the-block strength (“The Eagle”), or at least they try to do so, until they play the wrong song on the jukebox and crumble into tears (“A-11”).
The album is a classy, low-key affair, with solid, tasteful arrangements designed to show off the singers and the songs. Johnson sings this material as good as anyone, so no one shows him up really. A lot of the legends aren’t at their peak, really, though Ray Price shines as ever on “You Wouldn’t Know Love”, and on “I Fall to Pieces” Merle Haggard displays the same charming ease as on his recent work. It’s all very nice, though not surprising or revelatory. No one reinvents their song; no song reinvents duet singing as a practice; no one makes you think of Cochran or country music differently. The point is to get people thinking about Cochran, period, and to think of all these other stars and re-enjoy them and their music. On the final song, “Livin’ for a Song”, Cochran himself appears, with Kristofferson, Nelson, Haggard and Johnson, paying tribute to songwriting and the old-fashioned art of writing country songs like these – which ultimately is the point of this star-studded revue.