Mowin' Down the Roses With Jamey Johnson

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Jamey Johnson's "That Lonesome Song" was the feel-bad album of 2008. And the ache, angst and anger weren't a put-on: Johnson was going through a divorce and had lost his record deal when he began working up the self-released honky-tonk set.

But since the brilliant bummer of a country album was reissued last year by Mercury Nashville, things have been looking up for the brooding singer-songwriter with the Hells Angels beard: He's been racking up accolades and acclaim (it was a no-brainer to make my own year-end Top 10), and "That Lonesome Song" recently went gold.

Johnson, who performs Thursday at the Birchmere, called from Nashville for a quick interview.

Are you waiting to go platinum before you trim that awesome neckbeard?
Aw, man -- I'm not making any deals with anybody on when I'm going to cut this beard off. I kind of like it. [Laughs.]

You're kind of the opposite of Toby Keith, who says he shaves his armpits -- among other areas I didn't really want to know about -- because he gets all sweaty onstage.
I'm not even sure I wanted to know that.

Things seem to be going exceptionally well for you lately. I guess being bummed out was great for art -- and business.
I don't consider one to have to anything to do with the other. I don't know that being bummed out is necessary for any kind of success. My next story may not be anything like this story. I just hope people start listening to country music for the song again and the storyline behind it. But I didn't enter a period of being bummed out for the money.

I was kind of thinking the other way around: That your period of being bummed out resulted in some superlative songs that people are really responding to.
If you look at it that way, it's had its benefits. But I didn't know I was making a superlative project when I stepped in the studio to do this one. I was just making a country music record. I was making a record full of songs that represented my life at that time. I fully intend to do that again the next time around. But I'm in a different place. Not just me personally, but the entire country is.

Have you started writing for your next album?
I haven't stopped yet.

As the famous bluegrass song goes: "There's a dark and a troubled side of life./There's a bright and a sunny side, too." Does one side generally speak to you more?
Not necessarily. Even a song on the radio that completely lacks substance is there for a reason. Sometimes, people need a break from cold reality; the song that you really don't have to put that much thought power into can be just as entertaining as something that might take you on a three- or four-minute cruise through the depth of reality. Hank Williams is one of the best songwriters in history. However, "Hey Good Lookin'" -- not so deep of a song. Even Hank Williams recognized that people need a break.

(More after the jump.)

I guess if you look at your own work, "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" isn't anything at all like the writing you did for "That Lonesome Song."
(Laughs.) That's exactly right. Some people want to curse you for going to that extreme. But not every song needs to be the bitter pill. Every now and again, people need to be able to take their mind off of that sort of thing and move it elsewhere. For me, country music has always had a wide range of places to experiment. You can try all sorts of things out. Doesn't mean they're necessarily all going to work.

But that song obviously had some merit for it to sell as well as it did. And it was obviously placed correctly by the label and by the artist that recorded the song, Trace Adkins. I think Trace Adkins could cut "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" because of where he was in his career. However, for me, even having written the song, I'm not sure it fits the profile of our audience. Doesn't mean I discount the song at all. It's just like there's some actors you can see playing a certain role, and then there's other actors you couldn't see at all playing that role. Movies and music tend to be the same kind of thing.

Just to be clear here, you don't regret that song, do you?
Not at all. Man, when that song came out, my daughter was not even two years old yet. That was her favorite song on the radio. Never mind what critics thought about that song; I came home to my best critic, and she loved it. My job was done.

You recently won song of the year at the ACMs for "In Color," which you'd almost given away to Trace. Are you still writing for other artists, or are you going to keep everything for yourself now that your own recording career is really rolling?
You know, speaking of that: When you step up on stage to issue your thanks, I never have anything prepared. One of the first things I should have done was to thank Trace for that. But I wasn't sure how public he wanted to make that issue.

But since you brought it up, Trace Adkins was an absolute gentleman to me with that. I still feel like I took something away from him that I told him was his. I regret it. But that should provide a testimony for how adept or how versed Trace Adkins is on his song selections, the fact that he really should have had two songs up for song and single of the year. ["You're Gonna Miss This"
was the other.] To me, he gets an honor either way. I regret that I didn't stand there and mention that and thank him for allowing me to have that song back. That's something that's extremely rare for me, in that this is the only time I've ever asked for a song back that an artist had cut and was about to release.

But as far as writing from now on for other artists, man, I've never really considered myself a staff songwriter, writing songs and pitching them to other artists. There's been a few artists that maybe my people have shared songs with or I've played songs for friends and they've taken them to producers. But I think I'm going to keep doing business the same way I always have, which is to keep writing, keep recording and hopefully keep getting lucky.

Do you really feel like there's an element of luck?
Man, I live in Nashville. I know how good other songwriters and singers are around here. There's a wealth of talent in this town, not to mention the people who shoot in for a week or two to try their hand on lower Broad or the other venues around town. Yeah, I definitely believe in luck after getting to hear some of these other guys.

A large percentage of it, too, is determination. I can remember years ago playing little dives around Nashville, and hearing about artists like James Otto and hanging out with artists like Randy Houser. We were shutting down the bars at two in the morning, and all of us would go drinking after that to celebrate the night we just had. We were Nashville's determined. Maybe opportunity didn't open itself up to us as fast as it did to other people, but we just stuck with it. The doors didn't necessarily open for us, but we managed to kick them in over time.

I heard somebody call you the savior of country music recently. Does country need to be saved?
I don't know that the genre has ever been in need of a cowboy to ride in and save the day. That's not been my perception of country music. I think every artist has the right to come to town and sing whatever their idea of what country music is. Play it all on the radio together and let the fans decide that which they like the best.

The only thing I've said about it is, don't try to stop me from getting my music out there to those people. If you'll play everything else, you have to play this stuff, too. If you're going to play contemporary country music, you have to play traditional, too. That's where it came from. If you're not willing to play that, then maybe it ought to split. Maybe you ought to have contemporary country radio stations and traditional country radio stations. I don't know. But I don't stand in anybody else's way of accomplishing their dreams, and I don't like people standing in my way, either. That seems like a hostile thing to do.

When you say traditional country, do you mean music like yours that's rooted in traditional sounds?
Yeah, and not just in sound, but in message and content. I think there's a traditional message that's passed down that really I can't explain in the next five minutes. It's just a message of life. I can tell where you can find it, though. You can find it in artists like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Hank Jr., Waylon, pretty much anything written and sang by Kristofferson. Follow those paths. Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck, Ray Price, Mel Tillis, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn -- I don't want to leave anybody out, but there's so many artists that created the platform that I stand on today: Tammy Wynette, George Jones, Merle Haggard.

Artists and writers from that generation made something so rock solid that it actually raised an entire other generation. But the fact you don't hear songs like that today worries me. I can hear 'em here in Nashville, 'cause I know these guys that are writing this kind of stuff. But they're not able to find their way to radio. They're not getting their music out there to the people the way it ought to be brought out. I worry we're not passing it down properly.

That's kind of what I'm looking for in the days to come. I hope they open up the valve a little bit and start letting some really good traditional country guys through with these messages.
You've got the Randy Rogers Band doing great work. Shooter Jennings is writing great music. There's some others, too. Hell, man, I heard an album the other day by the Drive-By Truckers that I thought was great. Not necessarily traditional in sound, but I thought it was pretty sound content.

By J. Freedom du Lac |  May 9, 2009; 4:46 AM ET Interviews
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