Sunday, November 7, 2010

Pop culture alert: Jamey Johnson's new double album is a rare country gem

I developed a taste for old-school, hard-ass honky tonk country music when I was working as a feature writer for a Knoxville magazine company in the late 1970s. It's hard to avoid country when you're living in Tennessee. Knoxville was a just two hour drive east of Nashville, the country music capital of the world.

I lived there for two years but never made it to the Grand Ole Opry. Those traditional hat acts that Nashville churns out by the dozens never really appealed to me. I tend to favor bands or artists who would probably be classified in a record store as "alt-country."

Artists like Lucinda Williams, Emmy Lou Harris, and Texans Robert Earl Keen and Joe Ely are who I stick in the CD player when I am cravin' a country fix. Bands like the Drive-By Truckers, the Bottle Rockets and the Jayhawks also catch my ear from time to time. They're all bands that have been to school on Lynyrd Skynrd's licks and that crank out guitar blasts that can knock walls down.

Jamey Johnson is a lot like those Nashville traditionalists who never stoked my fire much back in my Knoxville days. But for reasons I can't quite fathom, I can't get enough of Johnson's new album, called The Guitar Song.

I first noticed his new album was getting some acclaim while looking at a website called "", one of my favorite websites. It posts composite scores and critical reviews of recently released CDs, movies, books, and TV programs. For me, it's a good way to keep my finger on the pulse of popular culture. If a handful of critics are jumping on the bandwagon of a new compact disc, it usually means it's worth hearing. Whenever a CD hits the 80 mark or higher, it lands on my wish list.

Johnson's The Guitar Song is sitting at the top of this year's CD offerings with a composite score of 90. For a country album to be earning those kind of high marks is unusual to say the least. I had to hear it.

I've been playing it for about a week now and the critical raves are justified. It's an audacious undertaking simply because these days few bands or artists have the artist vision or the sheer chutzpah to release a double album. Johnson's latest is a two-for. It offers a "black" album of 12 great songs that plum the darker regions of his heart and a "white" album with 13 songs that are more upbeat and deliver an optimistic take on life. You can play which ever suits your mood. But taken as a whole, it's a compelling package that's impossible not to admire, even if you don't enjoy country music.

Johnson covers a lot of ground on his new album. Even within the confines of standard verses/chorus song arrangements he's constantly changing the tempo and engaging his listener with snippets of hard-earned wisdom. One moment he's lowered his gravelly baritone to softly sing a meloncholy heart-tugger like "That's Why I Write Songs", dispersing life lessons:

I remember all the times I felt/
like somebody knows me too well /
'Cause it was my life story I was listening to /
I don't know about you /
But I've buried some family and a few good friends /
And held a brand new baby in my hands /
Cause it's not just what I do, it's who I am /
And that's why I write the songs

Then, two songs later, he's singing a humorous ode to Macon, Georgia.

I'm headed back to Macon /
middle of the Georga pines /
gotta keep these big wheels rolling /
to that sweet little thing of mine

When he lifts his voice into a plaintive wail in the song's chorus: "I gotta get back to Macon..." a gospel choir answers his lonesome call with: " all night!" This line adds a hilariously jaunty twist to what would have been a pedestrian lyric in the hands of a less accomplished lyricist.

Songs like "Good Times Ain't What They Used to Be" and "Playin' the Part" crackle with the confidence and energy of a hard-core honky tonk band intent on making booties shake on the dance floor. Johnson's voice lacks range, but it's steeped in hard-earned wisdom and is as steady of a bowl of oatmeal. You never get a sense he's less than dead sure of his own sentiments. The best songs are those when Johnson scales back the dance-floor pomp and dispenses with quiet, nearly philosophical, versions of truth and justice. There are plenty enough of them to keep you coming back to this record for repeated listenings.

If you like country music, especially the kind Nashville serves up, you'll love this two-disc package. And even if you don't, you'll come to admire a country artist plying his trade at the top of his game. Look for this one to land on my top ten list at the end of the year.

Here's a link to the L.A. Times review of this great collection of songs:

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