Best of 2008: Jamey Johnson

If Waylon rocked Rob Zombie's look, he'd be Jamey Johnson.

Country traditionalist Jamey Johnson is a good ol' boy in a bad, bad way on "That Lonesome Song," a brilliant bummer of an album.

The superlative songs are so sad and dark that they'd probably get Vern Gosdin to shed tears of joy.

"I woke up in my truck one morning after a hard night out on the town," Johnson writes in the album's liner notes. "With divorce on the horizon and my record deal taken away I set out for relief by getting out of my head for a while. Instead of risking the drive home (I was staggering drunk) I just threw my keys in the bed of my truck and went to sleep in the passenger seat. It was over a year later, after receiving Song of the Year at the ACM Awards in Las Vegas, before I'd have another drink. 'That Lonesome Song' is a collection of my observations of my life as I saw it during that time."

Johnson scored a minor hit with a 2006 album, "The Dollar," but the bearded Alabama native and one-time Marine was probably best known as a songwriter before he turned heads on Music Row with "That Lonesome Song." He won the ACM Award for co-writing George Strait's No. 1 hit, "Give It Away," and he also co-wrote a No. 1 for Trace Adkins, "Ladies Love Country Boys."

His most infamous writing credit? "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk." But don't hold that against Johnson: He's a country traditionalist at heart, favoring a hardcore throwback sound and style that owes much to his heroes Waylon Jennings and George Jones. "I left Montgomery on North 65/I was restless and ready to give Nashville a try," Johnson sings in a rugged, rumbling baritone. "I rolled into town with a sound of my own/Somewhere between Jennings and Jones."

Harrowing, honest and open-hearted, full of ache, anger and angst, and shot through with a dose of dark humor, "That Lonesome Song" is one of the best albums of 2008, landing at No. 4 on my year-end Top 10 -- even though Johnson originally self-released it in 2007 as a digital download.

"That Lonesome Song" is actually one of the great albums of 2007; but a lot of folks didn't hear it until 2008, when Mercury Nashville picked it up. Did you ever think Music Row would give you another shot after your first label deal with BNA fell apart?
Oh, I never got to the point where I thought it was necessary. When I got dropped, it didn't set me back any. It was just an education. It was learnin' how the music industry works, how sometimes, you're granted an opportunity and how sometimes opportunity is taken away. That one was taken away. When I was dropped, music became about me reaching an audience. And this day and time, you don't necessarily need a label to achieve that. You need a label to achieve it to a great degree, but we made this album for our crowd, the people we thought liked our music. That's the only people we considered.

Later on, it was just an added bonus -- almost a gift -- that a major label did like it enough to put it out in its form. But I wasn't losing any sleep over the fact that we didn't have a major record deal. We put it out on the Internet, late in 2007, and it got some attention -- fans buying the record, people playing it on their Internet radio stations and that sort of thing. That felt good to me.

Of course, you knew when you were digitally releasing the album that a year later, you'd be up for three Grammys -- including best country album and, according to Letterman, best beard -- right?
(Laughs.) In my humble opinion, best beard has got to go to William Lee Golden of the Oak Ridge Boys. That's just the way I feel about it. If we wind up taking best beard, I'm giving it to him to hang on his wall. But man, it was really surprising. I don't have anything more to say about it now than I did then night it happened. It was dumbfounding, to say the least, that the people who run these awards decided to reward us in that way. Just getting the nominations is something huge. We don't have to win one of them, and I feel like we've won three of them. If I had my way, I'd have to say this has to be the year George Strait gets his Grammy. He's been nominated a bunch and never taken one home. I think a lot of the man's music.

You were in a dark, dark place when you were making "That Lonesome Song." Fair to say, right?
Oh, definitely. When these songs were written, I'd become pretty much a -- I hate to use the word recluse, 'cause it ain't like I was spending all my time by myself. But when you're on the road, you're constantly surrounded by people. By the time I came back home, I'd quit drinking, I was in the middle of a divorce and I'd been dropped by my label. And I was missing that team, that unity, around me. I just stayed home; I didn't go out and hang out with friends. I was just getting through this by myself. I'd scribble down pieces of a song then call one of my buddies and write it. The whole album tells that story -- that lonesome song, that lonesome period in your life when you can't seem to make sense, you feel like you're fightin' the dragon by yourself. When we went in the studio and started recording the album, that was my friends basically lifting me up and putting me on their shoulders.

The clouds parted much since you made that music? Are things a little sunnier in your world?
Yeah, an album reflects where you were in a period of your life. If you look at a photo album, you're going to see pictures that range from this date to that date, and after a while you can't fit any more pictures in there because you've moved on to the next era. As far as what to expect from us in the future, more of the same, but it won't be dark and gloomy, because that's not what I'm about. I'm about just drawing somebody a clear picture of where I am in my life.

Would you write and sing about something you haven't actually lived? Because, clearly, everybody does.
In essence, that's what "High Cost of Living" is about. Having been dropped and going through the divorce and dealing with those things I was dealing with then, I felt like I was in a prison that I put myself in. It started with one bad decision and turned into more bad decisions. That's exactly what a man in jail can say happened to him: When it started, he was just a normal guy, and later on down the line, he's in jail telling his story. I think I can relate to that pretty well based on what I've lived through. Sometimes you use artistic license to explain what something feels like, even if it's not the honest-to-God truth. I'm not a recovering cocaine addict; I've never even tried the stuff. But I don't think I have to be a recovering addict to be able to tell somebody's story who is. Johnny Cash didn't have to shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die to be able to relate to a man who did that and is in jail.

So you're saying you didn't actually drive your John Deere over a bed of roses planted by your ex, as in "Mowin' Down the Roses"?
(Laughs.) I wrote that with Jeremy Popoff, who was in that rock band Lit. He was in the same situation as me: Their band was dropped by RCA and he was getting divorced. He has a little boy named Jake, I have a little girl named Kylee. We had many conversations, comparing notes, and we became best friends. We were watching a movie one night, "Black Snake Moan," with Samuel Jackson. In the movie, Samuel Jackson's character's wife runs off with his brother. He kind of gets a double-whammy right there. Finally, he gets past all the hurt and heartache and he's just mad. He's getting anything that reminded him of her out, throwing it in bags, taking it out of the house. He's turning the corner in his Bush Hog, ready to cut the fields, and he sees a bed of roses she'd planted -- and he just tears through it, fence and all. We saw that scene and just started laughing. It was perfect. That's exactly what a bad breakup feels like. At first, you're hurt and sad. Then you have a grieving period. And after a while, it turns to pure anger. We wrote the song based on that scene right there.

(More after the jump.)

Do you have a favorite lyric from the album? Like maybe "that Southern Baptist parking lot was where I'd go to smoke my pot and sit there in my pickup truck and pray"?
The whole purpose of fusing the album together, having every song laced to the next one, was to illustrate the fact that these songs belong together in this form, that they're inseparable. This is the story in the whole. There's not one of these stories that's any more relevant or necessary than the other ones. That's why the album is named "That Lonesome Song," because the album plays out as one song. That's probably not the answer you're looking for, though.

It's not!
Well, if you open up the album jacket, all the lyrics are popped out there. And there's one that's handwritten, the last line of "The Last Cowboy": "Does everything good have to change til the last cowboy's gone?" Musically, that's the statement we made with this album. We weren't done with the old traditional sound that so many people fell in love to country music to. I'm not sure how old a guy you are, but back when I was young, that's just the way country music sounded. It wasn't just one artist; it was Waylon, George Jones, Mel Tillis, Vern Gosdin, Ray Price, Faron Young. They all had that same type of edge and sound. That was country music.

You can't just stop doing that and say: "Well, that's already been done." Yeah, it's been done for 50 years, and if it ain't broke, don't fix it. We decided that's the way we wanted our records to sound. We don't use click tracks and a bunch of gadgets to make music. We just go in with our personalities and whatever skills we might have. Every guy in this band has been tried and tested. They've worked years in honky-tonk bars, doing low-paying gigs on the road where there's disrespect to the point of discontent for the kind of music that they enjoy. And here lately, we've finally started having a great deal of success with it.

I'm still waiting for you to come to D.C. to do a club show. Forget the big venues. It's all about my needs.
One of the things we've talked about in my camp is ticket prices. Our economy is going down, whether you feel it right now or not. I'm not one to sit there and pour doom and gloom on everything, but something bad happened on Wall Street and all the sudden everybody's calling in for bailout money. They said 533,000 jobs were lost just in a month. It's just a matter of time before that affects every single person in this country, you and me included. Ticket prices are the only way we can guarantee that everybody who wants to see a country show can afford to see it. We don't need a $50 ticket. That's not where my crowd is. My crowd is not the town's elite that can go to afford to see any show they want. My crowd is the guy that can barely afford $75 on a Friday night for him and a date to go out, have some beers, whatever. He works a 9-to-5 job for the week, can barely afford to pay a babysitter. I can do a cheaper ticket if I play in a bigger place.

You know, if you ever get hard-up for cash, you could always print up some extra copies of your indie debut, "They Call Me Country." That thing is worth some serious coin.
A buddy of mine called me up the other day -- the other day for me was probably a couple months -- but he called me up, said, "Man, a copy of 'They Call Me Country' just went up on eBay and sold for $170." I was like: Wowww! We only printed up about 2,000 of those. I think if I ever did put it back out, I'd have to change up the packaging and all, ever so much, just so we'd know which one was which. Those people that bought those first 2,000 were the people who fed me. They actually thought it was worth the $10 for them to get a copy. I want them to know they're holding onto something special.

Maybe you could change the cover photo.
I was still in the Marine Corps then. Still had my head shaved, my face shaved -- I looked like a baby. Funny thing was, I was still sexy. I couldn't believe it. How do you stay this sexy for that long? (Laughs.)

Couldn't tell ya. So any favorite albums/songs from 2008 besides your own?
Lee Ann Womack. That whole ["They Call Me Crazy"] album, man. She's the definition of country music. She's lived her life for it. She's sacrificed so many things just to go out and be able to play whatever it is she wants to play. When she puts out a record, I think every country-music lover out there should take notice and go out and get it, cause Miss Womack is fixin' to teach class.

There's a lot of great artists out there that maybe didn't put out an album in 2008, but that I always keep my eye on. One is Shooter Jennings, a good friend of mine. I think this guy is coming to us from a totally unique place. He's not the average story of guys who come to town chasing down that dream and finally getting it and everything. That's not a boring story by any stretch, but Shooter's story is totally different. I didn't call Johnny Cash my uncle my whole life. I never even got to meet Waylon. Shooter comes to the table with life lessons learned from his dad, from his dad's friends, and he's still on the path to discovering himself as an artist and expressing himself as a man. I'm excited to hear this album he's putting him out right now; I look for him to do great things every time he goes into the studio.

Also, there's this gal from Alabama, Tonya Watts -- she's a spitfire. She's a country girl with kind of a punk-country sound. I'm not one for labeling things, and I'm sure I didn't say it right. But her music is completely unique, her heart's in the right place and her talent and energy and devotion is there.

But country music is so full of great artists and great writers. I hope everybody gets their due. Anybody who packs up the house and decides to come to Nashville and chase this dream, they deserve their due. I'm not going to stand in the way of that. In the same way that you best not stand in my way.

By J. Freedom du Lac |  December 23, 2008; 10:30 AM ET Interviews , Year-End Lists
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