He could be basking in his songwriting accolades, but Jamey Johnson remains a restlessly creative maverick.
Jamey is the co-writer of the CMA and ACM 2007 Song of the Year “Give It Away,” recorded by George Strait. Trace Adkins, George Jones and Joe Nichols have also recorded his songs. But instead of sitting at home counting his royalty checks, Jamey Johnson recorded more than 40 songs during the past year.
Not content with providing hits for others, the singer-songwriter has a powerful drive to sing, record and perform.
“Writing is not enough for me,” says this intense artist. “I did not come here to just be a writer. I live to play….I’m not here to take a stab at it. I am going to DO it.”
Following a deep period of isolation and introspection, Jamey Johnson entered the recording studio in April 2007. He and his band blazed through dozens of songs. Within months, Jamey emerged with That Lonesome Song, a Gold-selling, critically acclaimed collection of extraordinary compositions that is equally noteworthy for its lyrical craftsmanship and its strikingly original sound.
The set burns with the emotional heat of songs such as “Angel” and “That Lonesome Song.” Turn one corner and you’ll find the dark humor of “Mowin’ Down the Roses” and “Women.” Turn another and you’ll find the soft contemplation of “The Last Cowboy” or “Place Out on the Ocean.” Jamey’s life sets the tone for the autobiographical “Stars in Alabama” and “Between Jennings and Jones.” And speaking of Waylon Jennings, Jamey pays tribute to his idol by covering “Dreaming My Dreams” and “The Door Is Always Open.”
At the heart of That Lonesome Song is a trio of great story songs. The frank lyric of “High Cost of Living” paints a dramatic portrait of a man who hits bottom and winds up in prison. “Mary Go Round” is the cautionary tale of a woman who goes through a divorce and loses her moral compass. “In Color,” the collection’s first single, is the moving depiction of a man looking back at his life in black-and-white photographs.
“The album never stops,” comments Jamey. “The whole album is one lonesome song, and that’s why it’s called That Lonesome Song. Every song is lonesome in its own way, even the funny ones.
“It’s been a work of love. We just had such a good time pulling it all together.”
Making music comes as naturally to Jamey Johnson as breathing. He was raised outside Montgomery, Alabama in a family that was poor but highly musical. Like so many country musicians, Jamey first performed gospel music in churches with his father.
“We would get up and do a song. Somebody would hear it and go, ‘Man, you don’t even know, but that just hit me right where I needed to be hit today.’ I got used to that at an early age. That’s what music is for. It’s to reach people. And I carry that with me today. I honestly don’t care about the money.”
Jamey is a study in contrasts. He was raised in a devout household, yet he spent part of his youth drinking beer and playing country songs at night on the Montgomery tombstone of Hank Williams. He has a backwoods upbringing, but is a formally trained musician who knew music theory as early as junior high school. He is deadly serious about his music, yet has an outrageous sense of humor. With his piercing pale-blue eyes and biker beard, he looks like a hell raiser, but he has the heart of a poet.
He seems like a rebel, but Jamey spent eight years as a member of the highly disciplined U.S. Marine Corps Reserves. The week he was discharged, the rest of his unit was ordered to Iraq.
By then, Jamey Johnson was in Nashville trying to launch a country career. He arrived on Jan. 1, 2000, spending every dime he had to make the move. He took a job as a salesman for a sign company, then worked for an industrial pumping company. In 2001-2004 he ran his own successful construction firm, restoring buildings devastated by fires, hurricanes or tornados.
Performing in Nashville nightspots led to work singing songwriters’ “demo” tapes on Music Row. Producer Buddy Cannon was impressed with Jamey’s soulful singing, as well as the direct honesty of his songwriting. Song publisher Gary Overton signed Jamey to EMI Music and joined Buddy in the effort to land him a recording contract.
Those efforts paid off with a label deal and Jamey’s hit single “The Dollar” in 2005. He hit the road – and the honky-tonks – with relish.
“Think about my life: I got right out of high school. Then it was eight years in the Marine Corps. I never got to go through that college experience where most kids get to go buck wild. Then I opened a construction company. Got married. Had a daughter. I’ve had responsibility galore on me for years, so when I got that record deal, that was my party. Me and my friends would go take over a bar. We were just as wild as hell and having the time of our lives. Everywhere we went, a crowd followed. I don’t mean 20 or 30 people. I mean like a couple of hundred.”
“We took that same element out on the road with us. Everywhere we went we packed those bars and did a good job. The bars made money. The crowd had a good time.”
But as a consequence, Jamey acquired the reputation of being a country-music “bad boy.” Rumors and speculation flew, exaggerating his escapades. He admits he was a little wild, but emphasizes that he always delivered the goods, professionally. During this time, he and his wife separated, then divorced. In addition, his record company’s enthusiasm cooled and he lost his recording contract.
“They thought I was a little too wild,” Jamey reflects. “They thought I was a little too rowdy. They did what they had to do. If I was in their position, I’d have probably done the same thing.”
“I turned into a recluse for about a year. I wouldn’t talk to anybody. I wouldn’t go out to clubs. I didn’t want to be at any party. I quit drinking for more than a year. In that respect, losing my deal was a good thing. Because I finally had time to come home and get my life back in order. More than anything, I stayed home and just sat there dwelling on things. It takes an awful lot of thinking to get through something like a divorce.”
“The thing that really carried me through all of that was the writing success. Trace Adkins and George Strait kept money in my bank account and kept my name out there. They pretty much carried me on their shoulders through that period, and didn’t even realize they were doing that. They just liked my songs.”
When he began to work on That Lonesome Song, Jamey says he felt a renewed sense of purpose and freedom. “Nobody was watching. We didn’t use a lot of the automation gadgetry. We spent so much time on the mix, just making sure you could hear every foot patting the floor, every creak of the chair. If someone turned around to adjust an amp, I wanted to hear their back pop. If their knuckles cracked, I wanted to hear it all.”
“After we got done, we knew we had something. I guess around summertime, we started bringing people in to listen to it.”
Word began to spread on Music Row. Two record companies approached Jamey. Both wanted him to either record the songs over again or have outsiders’ songs included on the project. Jamey turned both down.
“From now on, I want it to be my decision whether or not I sing something or I don’t. So just on principle, we turned them down. Luke Lewis at Mercury Records was the first person who understood. He said, ‘Man, I’ve just got one thing to say – don’t mess with that sound. I don’t know what y’all are doing in that studio, but just don’t mess with that sound.’ I said, ‘Hell, I came here to tell you that.’ Ever since then, it’s been a great relationship.”
Since its release in August 2008, the accolades have been piling up for That Lonesome Song. Jamey Johnson has played its songs for the national TV audiences of David Letterman and Jay Leno. Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Post, Esquire, The Los Angeles Times and American Songwriter are just a few of the major publications that have sung his record’s praises.
Last December, Jamey was about to go on stage at a festival in Houston, Texas when he learned he had been nominated for three Grammy Awards. He was just as excited by the fact that Lee Ann Womack told the crowd the news. The two recently became duet partners on “Give It Away” for the national TV special paying tribute to George Strait.
“Lee Ann introduced me that night in Houston,” he recalls. “I have loved her for so long. She can absolutely just tear you up with a song. I’m always scared to meet my heroes, but I’ve loved getting to know her. I loved meeting Willie Nelson and getting to know him. I always look forward to talking with The Oak Ridge Boys,” who recorded one of Jamey’s songs for their latest CD.
In February, when “The High Cost of Living” was issued as his album’s second single, Jamey was surprised to find himself nominated for five Academy of Country Music Awards. In April, he was stunned when he won the ACM’s Song of the Year honor. This time, it wasn’t for a song someone else sang. It was for “In Color.”
“I was just happy to be there,” says Jamey. “If I’d ended up going home without a trophy, I wouldn’t have cared. That floored me -- for them to say it was their Song of the Year and it wasn’t even a Number One record -- it was a very special thing.”
Right after the ACM accolade came the news that That Lonesome Song had been certified as a Gold Record. As a kid, did he dream of someday getting a Gold Record?
“Hell, I never even dreamed of it as an adult,” he sputters. “When we found out, I said, ‘We’re going to need a whole lot of plaques because I want to be able to give these things out to everybody.’”
“After all of this [recognition], today we’re playing the kind of places that two or three years ago I couldn’t even get booked into because we couldn’t sell enough tickets. Now we’re selling them out. The road is where it’s at. I love it. That’s where you take country music. You don’t get the message out there by sitting at the house.”
“We get people at the shows who have never heard this kind of country music, ever. We get up there and play and they go, ‘I’ve never heard anything like that. That was incredible!’ That’s the good stuff. I like to share with somebody else the music that turned me on when I was young. And when they have the same reaction, it’s like, ‘Oh, cool. I was hoping you’d like that, because I did.’”
He has a place on his wall for that Gold Record. He is proud of his CMA and ACM statuettes. He loves performing those sold-out shows. But you get the sense that what he’s really excited about is that his album is now available on vinyl, as a double LP.
“I’ve got one at the house,” he says excitedly. “Man, that’s how I listen to music. It’s my favorite, number-one preference at home, to go put a vinyl record on my great grandmother’s old record player. Which reminds me, I need to get somebody to do some maintenance on it. It needs a new needle.”