Sunday, September 26, 2010

Jamey Johnson: A return of outlaw country?

Tired of all those Nashville pretty boys crooning silly tunes about their laidback lifestyle? Well, hairy-scary Alabama shitkicker Jamey Johnson definitely ain't the hot tub type as you'll find out on his bold new 25-track double disc set, The Guitar Song (Mercury Nashville).
Back in 2006, the ex-Marine Corporal broke out with the promising debut The Dollar (BNA) and then was dropped by his label just as quickly – evidently celebrating his sudden success a little too much – but came back with a load of new material for That Lonesome Song. Originally available exclusively online, the independently recorded album was snapped up by Mercury Nashville on it's way to Gold certification and a slew of award nominations.
Whether or not Johnson knew that his album's impressive retail sales in conjunction with winning 2009 ACMA Song of the Year for In Color and dual Grammy nods for High Cost Of Living in addition to his writing credits on the chart-topping hits of Trace Adkins and George Strait would all but ensure a rubber stamp label approval for his follow-up recording, it sure looks like he got it.
By Music City standards, putting anything over the commonly accepted 10 songs on an album is considered unwieldy. More than 12 tracks is unadvisedly grandiose while anything beyond 15 songs is usually reserved for posthumous career retrospectives and tribute compilations saluting really popular artists. So something like Johnson's The Guitar Song – a 25-track concept behemoth – is pretty well uncharted territory in Nashville.
What makes Johnson's 105-minute epic even more astonishing is that it's filled with exceptionally well crafted originals along with a few well chosen covers (including Mel Tillis' Mental Revenge and Vern Gosdin's Set 'Em Up Joe) which all sound authentically country, not like that mind-numbingly dull soft-rock pap that passes for country music these days. In fact, some of The Guitar Song's grittier numbers like Lonely At The Top which kicks off the "Black album" (the other is called the "White album" even if the songs are interchangeable) could pass for genuine old-school honky tonk classics that George Jones and Merle Haggard used to cut way back in their drinking days. Or maybe more precisely, the late Keith Whitley, who co-wrote Lonely At The Top (with Don Cook and Chick Rains) in 1988 and demoed it but never had a chance to properly record the song before his tragic death in 1989 at age 34 due to alcohol poisoning.
Despite Johnson's stunning creative accomplishment – just getting the whole damn thing released is an achievement in itself – it may be a bit premature to claim that The Guitar Song's arrival marks the official return of outlaw country. Although it's a promising sign that the album is already confusing critics, used to busting out superlatives for any release with three worthwhile tunes out of 10, who now need a whole new scale to figure out where a prodigious singer/songwriter like Johnson fits amongst the hat acts. In any case, aging mavericks like David Alan Coe and Billy Joe Shaver should be relieved to discover that they're no longer the last ones holding the fort. 

Lonely At The Top by Jamey Johnson

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