Country Music drugs Hillbilly Music Jamey Johnson Kris Kristofferson My Way to You Outlaws Playing the Part sex The Guitar Song Yin-Yang
Jamey Johnson lives under the black veil of a modern day outlaw. But that might be more out of circumstance than desire.
In a country music industry that continues to shift away from steel guitars and songwriters and more towards boy bands with guitars and pop stars, Johnson doesn’t necessarily fit in. Attending one of his shows is like going to the Opry on a Saturday night… In 1968.
He’s rough and rugged and much more comfortable playing a guitar and singing than he is talking or dancing around a stage.
But he hasn’t necessarily always been this way.
In 2005, Jamey looked like your standard, generic Nashville country music singer. He wore the cowboy hat, the plaid shirt and his first major album cover featured the cheesy “hey guys, this is my CD” picture. He had one single called “The Dollar” that did marginally well on the country charts, but nothing else stuck and Johnson was quickly dropped from his record deal with BNA.
The next few years played out like, well, a country song.
Jamey divorced his wife and moved into a friend’s house. He kept almost entirely to himself. It was during this time that his songwriting took a distinct turn towards darkness. It was also during this time that he began growing out his trademark long hair and beard that has recently reached epic proportions.
First it was songs for other people that came out. There was “Give It Away,” a No. 1 hit for George Strait and “Another Side of You,” a top-20 song for Joe Nichols. Both written by a mentally-confined Jamey Johnson.
Imagine the scene in “Get Rich or Die Tryin’” where 50 Cent gets released from solitary confinement and they find that he has completely covered his cell’s walls in engraved rap lyrics? Well, replace 50 with a 30-year-old white dude and prison with a house in a Nashville suburb and you set the scene.
And that was the birth of a CD.
In 2007, Johnson and his road band, the Kent Hardly Playboys, recorded and produced an album properly titled “That Lonesome Song” without any form of a record label. The album made waves on the Internet, and Jamey and friends were quickly picked up by Mercury Records in 2008, and the CD was released.
Fast forward two years, and Jamey is a mega star. Okay, not really.
While he has come a long ways from his days in a buddy’s basement, Johnson’s sound hasn’t caught on with mainstream country in the way other recent newcomers have. Critics love his genuine sound and the Grammy’s have offered him praise. But in country music, the lines between popularity/notoriety and critical acclaim don’t always intersect.
But Jamey is “ridin’ around and playing country music” which he insists is all he ever wanted. On Sep. 12, he released “The Guitar Song,” a double-disc, 105-minute, 26-second monster of an album that Johnson said he has worked on for four years.
He describes it as a Yin-Yang concept. A “Black Album” that runs through those days of darkness and ends at his lowest point. But then a “White Album” that slowly becomes more positive and depicts his current state.
Now by positive, Jamey means less dark than the black album. Don’t expect any kind of inspirational or cheerful rhetoric.
Johnson said the goal was to make it play out like a movie. I say it plays out like one of the best damn things I’ve ever listened to.
Time to go all Hilson on you and review some music that’s not played by angry teenagers.
1. Lonely at the Top written by Don Cook, Chick Rains and Keith Whitley
A song heavily led by steel guitars that tells of a country music singer complaining about his life to a regular working man at the bar. The working man of course has no interest in the tedious whining and instead takes advantage of the singer’s bar tab, as any good, blue-blooded American would do. Musically fun opener to warm you up before you go plunging down to the depths of Johnson’s sordid hell.
“Lonely at the Top” is a song originally put together, but never released by Keith Whitley, who died of alcohol poisoning in 1989. It is the first of five covers on “The Guitar Song.”
Favorite Part: “I said ‘would you like a drink?’/He said ‘thanks, I’ll have a double/I’ve worked up a powerful thirst just listenin’ to all your troubles.’”
2. Cover Your Eyes written by Bobby Bare, Wayd Battle and Jamey Johnson
I told you you were about to take a plunge. If most divorces have the on-again, off-again vibe before the final conclusion is made, this is how Johnson talks about his. They’re bouncing between together and apart and it’s clear that it’s more straining than it is rewarding for both. It’s going through the human motions, but maybe it’s best if she doesn’t watch.
Slow build with an eery acoustic riff that picks up for the chorus but still allows Johnson’s insanely painful voice to resonate above all else.
Favorite Part: “Cover your eyes/It can’t hurt forever/Soon I won’t ever cross your mind.”
3. Poor Man Blues written by Jamey Johnson
So is this what happened to Jamey’s wife? The song starts out with the old school vibe that has been heard so many times in country music. Characterizing the selfish rich man that walks all over blue-collar America, all in a classic “talking verse, croaning chorus” style that takes you back to Nashville 30 years ago.
But just when you begin to write it off as a slight cliche, Jamey makes it personal. This rich man wasn’t just firing his friends and invading his honky tonks. He stole the only thing Jamey had. Oh, and this song makes him sound like one scary bastard.
Favorite Part: “Rich man waltzed right into her life/ Swept her off her feet/For all his fame and his fortune/Lord knows I couldn’t compete/When he took her love away from me/I had nothin’ else to lose/So I showed that rich man just what happens/When a poor man gets the blues.”
4. Set ‘Em Up Joe written by Buddy Cannon, Hank Cochran, Dean Dillon and Vern Gosdin
The Black Album hits its second cover fairly early. This one was recorded as a bit of a tribute on the morning that Johnson discovered Vern Gosdin had died. The song itself was a tribute to Ernest Tubb that was Gosdin’s second No. 1 single in 1988. It talks about a man playing the life out of Tubb’s “Walking the Floor Over You” in reaction to his woman leaving.
A catchy track that fits perfectly in Johnson’s chronological thinking.
Favorite Part: “Every day they replace old B24/’Cause every night I run the needle through ‘Walking the Floor.’”
5. Playing the Part written by Jamey Johnson and Shane Minor
In 2007, Johnson was part of a failed Fox reality series called “Nashville.” The show was supposed to depict nine aspiring country music singers. It lasted two weeks and was dropped. Johnson has talked about how much he despised the experience and dealing with the Los Angeles scene during production. So he wrote “Playing the Part.”
It sounds line-danceable, and it’s always fun to take a jab at L.A. This song has been released as the album’s second single.
Favorite Part: “These high-dollar women/And the fame and the fortune/Ain’t worth the ticket I bought.”
6. Baby Don’t Cry written by Jamey Johnson and George Teren
Well, when he’s not popping depression pills in Hollywood or threatening to kill rich dudes, Jamey Johnson is of course a loving father. Because “transient songwriter that lives in his friend’s basement” isn’t the best description to have if you want custody, Johnson assures his baby daughter that he is only a phone call away.
It’s all told in a charmed fashion that links numerous traditional bedtime fairy tales. I’m sure this will be a favorite at all outdoor wedding reception father-daughter dances for the next few years.
Favorite Part: “So pretend I’m right there by your side/And we’ll save the princess tonight.”
7. Heaven Bound written by Jamey Johnson
A distraught song from a man at an uninspired phase of his life. This song is a very mild acoustic ballad that almost serves as more of a buffer between two very different installments than it does as a song. It creeps along and gets inside the mind of someone who is beginning to think that Heaven is all they have to look forward to.
Favorite Part: “Sometimes it sure gets cold/In the fall on music row/But it’s worth it/If it gets me by somehow.”
8. Can’t Cash My Checks written by Jason Cope, Jamey Johnson, Shannon Lawson and James Otto
Easily one of my personal favorite songs on either CD. It has all the wit and simple-yet-clever lyrics that bring people to country music in the first place. It’s obviously depicting a hard time but it’s still able to have a little back-handed sarcasm. Starts slow but picks up as it goes, and since it comes after “Heaven Bound,” the slowness is barely even noticed.
There’s also a really cool band-inclusive jam session that stretches it out past the seven-minute mark.
Favorite Part: “It’s so hard to stay honest in a world that’s headed to Hell/You can’t make a good livin’ these days ’cause the truth just won’t sell/So if you go out my back door, just over the hill/You’ll see all these plants that’s been payin’ my bills.”
9. That’s How I Don’t Love You written by Jamey Johnson and Dean Miller
Country music has long been known for its “kiss-off” songs. You know, the song where boy finally gets over girl and writes his “good riddance” composition. Usually these songs are kind of bright and sunny and “I’m so much better without you.” But, well, this is Jamey and he has a different take on it.
So what made you get over her, Jamey?
- Uh, I drank a lot.
Awesome answer. Major blues vibe from the opening guitar lick on until the fuzzy ending. Drink up, heartbroken America.
Favorite Part: “Now I just pour the poison in/And act like it’s my new best friend at night/And I cry/ And that’s how I don’t love you anymore.”
10. Heartache written by Jamey Johnson and Rivers Rutherford
Yes, the subject of heartache has been pretty well-covered on this side of the Yin-Yang. So what’s the difference here? Pretty simple, this song is actually written from the perspective of… Heartache. As far as we know, heartache is not a real, functioning person with objectives, but that doesn’t stop Jamey from making it one.
A really tense song that should transfer well over to radio if promoted right. It makes for an interesting take on songwriting’s favorite topic, and a cool palm-mute/shred guitar mix in the back gives the song a grinding pulse.
Favorite Part: “From Anthony and Cleopatra/Samson and Delilah/To Jackie and JFK/To Elvis and Priscilla/Charles and Diana/I’d say I’ve had some pretty good days.”
11. Mental Revenge written by Mel Tillis
What were we saying about kiss-off songs? This song, which was crafted by Mel Tillis and popularized by Waylon Jennings, fits that category in a prototypical manner. Light-hearted but vengeful, Jamey’s rendition sways along like a bluegrass band at the county fair.
Listen to it twice. It will be stuck in your head all day, and you won’t be mad about it.
Favorite Part: “Well I hope that the train from Caribou, Maine/Runs over your sweet love affair/That you walk the floor from door to door/And pull out the peroxide hair.”
12. Even the Skies Are Blue written by Jamey Johnson and River Rutherford
Jamey says this song is as low as you can go and as low as he did. My response? Uh, thank God because this might be the most downtrodden, hopeless message ever conveyed in a song. Basically the message here is that the world is in terrible shape. There’s wars, divorce and the abandonement of faith. And even on the occasional day when it’s sunny and bright outside, all that it tells us is that God is crying because even the sky is blue.
It’s brilliant writing and it comes off completely raw and stoic. But this is the one song in this whole thing that just crosses a bit of a line for me. It’s one of the only things in the case that I can’t listen to over and over again. And I think that’s a credit to what Jamey is actually trying to do here. This is the jumping off point before things pick up on the White Album.
Every turn-around has the bottom moment and maybe that realization is why this song is a little more difficult to listen to than the rest.
Favorite Part: “These are hard days/Heavy old hard days/Dead string guitar days/And the Devil is picking his tune.”
1. By the Seat of Your Pants written by Wayd Battle, Carson Chamberlin and Teddy Gentry
One of only two non-cover songs on the album that Johnson did not at least co-write, this one administers the turn-around that comes from looking back on some fatherly advice. It’s nothing real revolutionary, but it provides the needed transition from “Even the Skies are Blue” into the White Album.
A funky steel guitar sequence takes it near the 6:32 mark where you hear something that you never thought you’d get after Black Album intake. Yes, that sound is laughter.
Favorite Part: “He said sometimes huntin’ ain’t all about the kill/Sometimes that woman of your dreams can be a little bit too real.”
2. California Riots written by Jamey Johnson and Lee Thomas Miller
Another candidate of mine for favorite track on the album. “California Riots” basically serves as the sequel to “Playing the Part” but takes on an entirely different demeanor. Where before he was giving up and resorting to drugs to get by, he’s now dropping the pill bottle and leaning on his southern roots. He still doesn’t care too much for the L.A. lifestyle, but he’s now focused on the glimmering fact that he won’t be there for long, and the city is someone else’s problem.
Favorite Part: “All the women here look perfect/And it hardly ever rains/And for some folks here I’m sure it’s paradise/Well I’ll dabble with the fortune/Rub elbows with the fame/But I’ll be damned if this is where I’m gonna die.”
3. Dog in the Yard written by Buddy Cannon and Jamey Johnson
Normally, a man saying that a woman treats him like a “dog in the yard” would probably be a negative statement. But somehow, Johnson finds a way to make it sound pretty damn endearing. This song is straight out of your stereotypical, outskirts of town honky tonk and it works to perfection in that role.
Any woman who ever wanted to know how simple-minded and content a man really is, here’s your evidence.
Favorite Part: “Sometimes you kick at me when I’m down/It drives you crazy when I just lay around/No matter what you do/I think I’ve found the perfect home.”
4. The Guitar Song written by Bill Anderson, Jamey Johnson and Vicky McGehee
Well, we’ve already heard one song written from the perspective of heartache, so it’s obviously time for one written from the perspective of two old guitars hanging on the wall of a pawn shop. Guitar No. 1 is a bit of a show-off that’s shared a stage with Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash while Guitar No. 2 has a more humble background, playing in smokey bar rooms and “selling a lot of beer.”
The two guitars just might be symbollic of the song’s two primary songwriters. Anderson is a songwriting legend in Nashville who has worked with everyone from Ray Price to Kenny Chesney. Neat piece full of talking that almost serves as a musical skit.
Favorite Part: “But I dream about the spotlight/And the roaring of the people/And I wonder if I’m ever gonna hear ‘em sing along/I’m just a guitar in the pawn shop on the corner/Hey, come on by and listen to my song.”
5. That’s Why I Write Songs written by Ashley Gorley, Chris DuBois and Jamey Johnson
One of the truly great songs on an album full of great songs. This one is as stripped down and basic as country music will ever get, but it is a sharp description of Johnson’s love affair that he has with his career.
Given four hours (12 A.M. to 4 A.M.) to record the song in Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, the song is one part acoustic guitar, one part Jamey and one part Ryman. With headphones on, you can hear the creaking of the wood floors and the delicate distortion of sound in the old building. Johnson likes to think that you can hear the ghosts of country legends that have always been apart of the storied structure.
They just might be singing along.
Favorite Part: “You fell in love or threw it away/You’re looking for the perfect thing to say/You’re no good with words, well that’s okay/That’s why I write songs.”
6. Macon written by Kacey Coppola and Jamey Johnson
“Macon” opens with an awesome piano melody. The kind of piano melody that when you hear it thirty years from now, you’ll immediately think “damn, that’s ‘Macon.’” And it doesn’t let off any from there. The motivation of having someone to come back home to after long days on the road is accented by a background female vocal presence that almost sounds like something you would have heard out of southern rock in the 70s.
It also doesn’t hurt Jamey career-wise that this is one of the more mainstream-friendly installments listed here.
Favorite Part: “Well, my baby says she ain’t crazy ’bout stayin’ home all alone/And the faster I go, the more I know about waitin’ too damn long.”
7. Thankful for the Rain written by Jamey Johnson, Vicky McGehee and David Lee Murphy
Oh, Jamey. You and your metaphors. The storm is a woman that goes back-and-forth on her commitment to our favorite Jesus-looking singer-songwriter. But he’s learning not to mind as he has decided that he doesn’t really care if she’s just barging into town and destroying his neighborhood every couple of days and then leaving. At least he’s getting some action. Or something like that.
He’s back to a creeping guitar track here that goes along with the Black Album sound and some background thunder because the song is about storms. Duh.
Favorite Part: “I know when the morning comes/The truth will rise up like the sun/As I’m cleaning up the damage done/There’s everything I prayed for.”
8. Good Morning Sunrise written by Arliss Albritton
Short and not at all wordy but it tells an intriguing and important story nonetheless. A catchy rhythm leads you through a ballad that plays out like a short film. Like so many other country songs, a man has lost a woman. Unlike so many other songs, he’s taking it out on the dawn.
SC does not officially support binge drinking till sunrise. But it is fun.
Favorite Part: “Last time I saw you, you let me down/I told her by morning, she and I would work things out/Well you took that sky just like she was yours to take/Good morning, sunrise. Guess I’ll call it a day.”
9. Front Porch Swing Afternoon written by Buddy Cannon, Jamey Johnson and Larry Shell
Country music singers have used the phrase “I think this song paints a perfect picture of what it’s like growing up in the country” a gabajillion times. They’re usually not correct. But they also didn’t make this song.
This song sounds like your grandma’s house, if your grandma lives out on expansive property hours outside of town and serves candy-sweet iced tea that has a shot of bourbon in it from time to time. If it paints a picture, it paints it in 4-D. Maybe it’s the acoustic guitar playing a bit that manufactures smiles and relaxed spirits, but this one just has a sensational good feel to it.
Favorite Part: “I can hear music from somewhere outside/The faint sound of a Hank Williams tune/I just caught the scent of a blackberry pie/On this old front porch swing afternoon.”
10. I Remember You written by Jamey Johnson and Shane Minor
Traditional country music was always derived at least partially from gospel. So it is fitting that this song finds its way onto the White Album. It’s filed with the kind of piano that sounds like it’s being played in a neighborhood church in the south and it features a conversation with God. And yes, God even sings back with a message that’s not all that different from the one the main character is sending from his shaking knees.
Listening to this, it’s hard to believe that we’re only 20 or so songs removed from death threats, severe depression and drug use.
Favorite Part: “I remember you/I was there when you were born/I held your mamma’s hand and your daddy’s, too/I remember you/I recall the very day you turned against the Devil/And you cried out my name.”
11. Good Times Ain’t What They Used to Be written by Dallas Davidson, Jamey Johnson and Jim McCormick
Hank Williams, Jr., once sang that all of his rowdy friends had settled down. Jamey Johnson speaks from personal experience when he says that it’s a damn good thing that he himself has settled down.
One of the most upbeat and quick tracks you’ll find on either disc, this is probably about as happy as Jamey gets. It’s a message of maturity and a band that can play fast as hell without really sounding like it.
Favorite Part: “And nowadays I dream of an old cane pole/My baby’s sweet tea and my favorite fishin’ hole/I sit down on that bank underneath the shade tree/And I thank God the good times, Lord ain’t what they used to be.”
12. For the Good Times written by Kris Kristofferson
For many songwriters, Kristofferson serves as a gold standard. And rightfully so. Few have ever been able to put together the musical word quite like the man who took up writing songs while at the University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship.
And to many, his quintessential song is “For the Good Times” which appeared on his debut album but was made famous by Ray Price who made it a No. 1 hit and the ACM Song of the Year in 1970. Since then, it has been recorded by a plethora of artists that ranges from Al Green and Michael Jackson to Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.
One of the greatest love or anti-love songs ever written.
Jamey’s rendition is true to the original, and makes Kristofferson’s lyrics sound just as timeless as they were 40 years ago.
Favorite Part: “I’ll get along/You’ll find another/And I’ll be here if you should find you ever need me/Don’t say a word about tomorrow or forever/There’ll be time enough for sadness when you leave me.”
The iconic original.
13. My Way to You written by Jamey Johnson and Charlie Midnight
You know how sometimes when a big movie comes out, the movie’s theme song will make waves a couple months before the film? And then when you’re watching the film, you’re waiting for that song to pop up the entire time and then finally the credits hit and you hear it and it makes so much sense that they waited because it basically sums up what you just spent 100 minutes watching?
Yeah, that’s “My Way to You.”
Released as a single two months before “The Guitar Song” came out, it has a little bit of everything. The low trotting beats, the screaming guitars, a blend of desperate and optimistic lyrics. This is the Spark Notes version of the album. If you don’t have an hour and 45 minutes, you can kind of condense the journey to 5:21 with this. But Jamey’s not going to let you know that until the very end.
Like most of what Jamey does, it deserves more credit than it got. But that just might be why it fits him so well.
A curious aspect of this song is the end. Like many of the songs on “The Guitar Song,” the end of “My Way to You” features a melody that would appear to start a next song. But there of course isn’t one here.
Favorite Part: “There’s been high times/There’s been hard times/And 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.”
There it is. Just over 4,100 words later, I think I like this entire set even more than I already did.
If you’ve actually listened along, you probably need a drink.
I’ll join you.