Review – Jamey Johnson – That Lonesome Song (Mercury Nashville)

Anybody that has read this blog for more than three seconds knows that I only review music that I like. I’m from Texas. I was taught if you don’t have anything good to say keep your trap shut. People work hard on the music they produce and I respect that even if  what they do may not be my shot of whiskey. That said, I would like to review the new release by Jamey Johnson three times to show how much I like it. I would like to but I was also taught to not repeat myself. So here goes…

Singer/songwriter Jamey Johnson is part of a movement that could be considered the new outlaws. Artists like Ryan Bingham, Hank Williams III, Shooter Jennings and the band Eleven Hundred Springs look back on country music’s diverse legacy (as well as a potent shot of rock thrown in for spice) to build a new movement that champions sincerity and grit over image and marketing.

These young’uns are not afraid to wear their influences on their sleeves and, honoring country music’s history, willing to put their personal stories- happy, sad, sordid – to music. While celebrating country musics roots these artists ride precariously close to what has been labeled music. These sub-genres are considered the aural ghetto of what the big Nash-Vagas music and mainstream country music radio deem worthy of the country music label. Some radio programmers have even described the sound as “too country.” The nerve!

The sound of “”That Lonesome Song”” is not as spare (or groundbreaking) as Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger,” but like Willie did at the time of RHS’s release, I can imagine Johnson receiving feedback from the Nash-Vegas label gatekeepers that these demos sound good, but when can we record of the final songs? (To their credit Mercury Nashville seems to have had the sense to leave the songs as is.)

Johnson found work early in Nashville cutting demos for other songwriters so he knows when the varnish is applied and how the official way a Nashville record is suppose to sound. He has purposely thrown all that out the window for something truer and rougher around the edges. The occasional flub and musicians chewing fat is all here in all it’s beautiful imperfection. Johnson is backed by exceptional Kent Hardly Playboys (Kent Hardly Play, Boys – get it?)

Imperfection is also a theme that runs throughout this release, Johnson’s own. Sure the songs on “That Lonesome Song” sound lonesome (It’s intellectually lazy to mention as much, it’s right there in the title!) but they also have a vein gritty resilience running throughout. Ex-Marine Johnson pulls no punches mining his life for songs and there was some hell to be sure, booze, drugs, divorce, risking his golden-boy Nashville career (Johnson wrote “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” which was a hit for Trace Adkins and George Strait had recorded his song “Give It Away”), it’s all here encapsulated in 13 bleak cuts of cathartic beauty. And after it all he sounds like he’s enjoying life.

The release starts with appropriately enough with the sound of a prison door being closed behind Johnson as he leaves jail and is told to “Stay out of trouble.” I suppose heeding that advice led to his nearly year long seclusion as well as this body of work.

“High Cost Of Living” follows with it’s woozy pedal steel and tells a stark tale of substance abuse taking its toll on his life, his health and his relationship with his wife. “The high cost of living ain’t nothing like the cost of living high” Johnson sings in his plain Alabamian baritone drawl that advises us to “Leave that stuff alone.” The song then dissolves into guitar and pedal steel searing swapping solos. “Angel” is a lost-love lament done in slow-motion classic Texas waltz style that aches with longing, regret and a weeping pedal steel.

“Place Out On The Ocean” is a breezy beach song Kenny Chesney would never have the subtlety or sense to record. It’s like Guy Clark went some time in Key West and came home to Austin and wrote a ditty. Johnson even uses the cliched hip-hop couplet of “Mercedes” and “Ladies” and somehow just fits naturally.

As a humorously black foil to the song “Angel,” “Mowin Down The Roses” kicks off like a slinky funk tune complete with a mumbled “Crank it, aw here it comes” but shows it’s dark hillbilly humor right soon as the subject catalogs the remembrances he is dutifully trashing in his estranged’s absence.

“The Door Is Always Open” is eerily reminiscent of Waylon Jennings at his rollicking dusty best in yet another thematic turn of events as he assures his ex that she will always be welcomed back in his arms.

“In Color” is probably the most single-worthy (whatever that is) of the release. It’s a nostalgic mid-tempo tune on lineage and recollection that comes off as genuine, and stops short of cloying sentimentality by playing it straight.

“The Last Cowboy” begins with a distant tolling bell and then laments the vanishing world of great country music and the culture that cultivates it. In a  nip if not a bite at the hand that fed him Waylon Jennings, John Wayne, Gene Autry and Roy Rodgers are name checked as heroes that have been forgotten by Nash-Vegas establishment. The title song again conjures up visions of Waylon Jennings at his forlorn, ornery best.

“Between Jennings And Jones” concludes the release, It is a song that was derived of after a friend of Johnson’s said he found his first release in the CD store “Between Jennings And Jones” and the song recounts Johnson’s history in Nashville with it’s highest highs and lower then lows, with a few laughs and memories thrown in for good measure.

I had the pleasure of meeting Jamey Johnson a couple of years ago after seeing him perform at Nashville’s legendary Bluebird Cafe (where he played in a guitar pull with my uncle Tony Lane) and he genuinely seemed like a good guy that was loving life (and tequila, a few shots of which I enjoyed along with him) and living no wilder then Southern boy who had come into his own. It’s a shame that he had to fall when he was riding high but if “That Lonesome Song” is any indication of how he’s doing I’d say he’s back in the saddle.

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