Let’s begin a new decade by talking about one of the biggest stories in country music at the end of another decade.
Jamey Johnson’s success story in mainstream country music, to this day, is remarkable. Aside from the rising dominance of Taylor Swift, mainstream country music in the mid-to-late 2000s lacked a defining story or trend. Sure, pop-country acts like Rascal Flatts, Keith Urban and Sugarland ruled the charts then, but so did, say, Dierks Bentley or Gary Allan – artists who walked a rough line housing a solid sense of tradition with a contemporary flair, even if they weren’t quite in the same league, commercially.
In 2006, Johnson belonged squarely in the latter camp, yet he also didn’t. His debut album, The Dollar, stood as a testament to country music’s roots, yet Johnson also had writing credits for Trace Adkins’ “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” and “I Got My Game On,” as well as his own “Rebelicious” – all of which showed an unfortunate side to Johnson’s style.
It’s dangerous to assume pain is a necessary prerequisite for great art, but after BNA Records dropped Johnson, it may have been exactly what he needed. He bounced back, of course, but on his own terms – filing for divorce, living a reclusive lifestyle and nabbing more co-writing credits to allow him to stick to the shadows. And by all accounts, Johnson seemed content to leave dreams and aspirations of stardom behind. The clean-cut gentleman smiling on the cover of The Dollar album was no more. I’ve already called Johnson’s success story remarkable, and there’s two reasons why, despite the aforementioned hardships, Johnson would stand as a legend in his own right … even if the commercial appeal was short-lived.
For one, Mercury Nashville Records took a chance on Johnson after hearing his That Lonesome Song album, released solely online initially. Let me repeat that – a major record label thought an album with an opening track that contains the line “That southern Baptist parking lot is where I’d go to smoke my pot” just might have commercial appeal. The second remarkable aspect is that, well … it did. Johnson would never become a radio star, and his biggest hit, “In Color,” would settle for a No. 9 peak, but he had the attention of the industry. Along with awards from the country music industry came nominations from the Grammys. And as for his placement in country music, Johnson stood isolated from his peers, ditching his redneck anthems for songs about the downtrodden, heartbroken screw-ups of the world.
A lengthy introduction for a piece supposedly focusing on Johnson’s 2010 album, The Guitar Song, sure, but also a necessary one to sketch just what this album meant for Johnson’s career. As the old cliché goes, Johnson wasn’t here for a long time, but he was certainly here for a good time. Of course, it’s easy to assess The Guitar Song in hindsight, especially when it’s the last original album Johnson’s released to date. Then, however, it stood as a grand undertaking meant to strike while the iron was hot, but never on anything except Johnson’s own terms. Today, it stands as an acknowledgment that “stardom” was never for Johnson, and that any anointment of him being a savior, while not wrong, also placed an unnecessary burden on him.
Again, The Guitar Song was meant for pretty much everyone and everything – that is, except radio airplay. Mel Tillis and Vern Gosdin covers just weren’t going to cut it in the 2010s, and that’s before anyone knew the disastrous road mainstream country music would head in that decade. As a double album, too, the thematic undercurrent of the “black” and “white” albums showed a commitment to art, rather than a random collection of “tunes.” But to be honest, for as much as Johnson claimed the white album to show a lighter, more optimistic side to him, both discs are pretty damn heavy for their own reasons.
Again, the benefit of hindsight is a great (and likely unfair) aid to an analysis of this album, especially when it kicks off with the Keith Whitley cover of “Lonely At The Top” – a song that finds the songwriter simultaneously annoyed and thankful (and possibly bemused) by the idea that he somehow “made it,” even if he knows he’s not in it for the long haul. For me, the white album houses a few better songs, but the black album is much more consistent. Johnson’s never offered much in the way of charisma or range, but he commands a room with his deep, bellowing voice. What he lacks in stage presence he makes up for in emotive performances, proving why he was always a songwriter first and a performer second.
In other words, while the “Set ‘Em Up Joe” cover is nice, it lacks Gosdin’s easy-going charm. But flip the script for something like “Cover Your Eyes” or “That’s How I Don’t Love You” and Johnson is undeniably at his best. And the fantastic, moody bass groove driving the latter track certainly doesn’t hurt that uneasy tension. Or go even further for “Poor Man’s Blues,” “Can’t Cash My Checks” or “Heartache,” all of which find Johnson utilizing that low-simmering growl to his voice to fantastic, chilling effect. “Dark” is certainly as appropriate of a descriptor for this side of the project as Johnson says it is, but even it feels like an understatement at points. With the creaking organ and eventual grimier bass driving “Heartache,” it’s a nasty little song that, despite all of its aforementioned elements, still seems like it’s Johnson’s way of having a bit of fun on the album … again, in his own way. And that further extends toward “Playing The Part,” a song that, catchy as it is, also shows that constantly living in the spotlight was quickly becoming a facade for Johnson.
In that sense, it’s hard to judge whether the dark half of The Guitar Song is simply centered around characters at the end of their rope, Johnson’s observations of the fleeting industry around him, a look into his mind pre-That Lonesome Song, or maybe a little bit of everything. I’m inclined to go for the second option, especially when the light half of the project focuses more on the art-making process and Johnson’s role in all of it. Again, I’d argue this half of the album is sometimes as dark as its other half, but unlike that half, which finds its characters (and Johnson) in the throes of it all, the second half is about getting stuck in those situations while looking ahead to right certain wrongs. It’s spelled out a little more plainly on, say, a track called “Thankful For The Rain” (really, the title says it all), but there’s also the three-song-run of the title track through “Macon” – all of which focus on the joyous parts of the craft before concluding with Johnson saying he needs to make it back home to make up for that lost time, in turn detailing how every good entity comes with its own price.
On that note, the sequencing is also commendable. The second half of The Guitar Song may lack consistency, but it’s always loosely moving toward Johnson finding his own personal redemption. I’d be remiss not to mention how a predictable cut like “Dog In The Yard” or the cloying “Front Porch Swing Afternoon” can make an already long project feel longer than it is, but from “I Remember You” until that closing moment, it’s arguably the best this album sounds, which is saying something. Even for as much as “Front Porch Swing Afternoon” does drag on, it’s also a tiny thesis statement for the project at large – where Johnson is stopped in a moment in time to reflect on his childhood and remember little details of what made his upbringing so special. From the smell of a blackberry pie to hearing a faint Hank Williams tune (which, unlike certain contemporaries, actually feels like an earned influence for Johnson when he name-drops him), it’s a larger reminder that, for Johnson, less is more. Cold, lonely and isolated is how I’d describe much of The Guitar Song, with the focus eventually turning toward recapturing who Johnson is, personally; but it’s also a way to describe how distant this project feels from everything else around it. The production and tones feel subdued and fine-tuned for a jukebox in the ‘70s, but never outwardly retro or beholden to a certain sound. Johnson sometimes wears his influences on his sleeve, but the names aren’t always so obvious. On “That’s Why I Write Songs,” he cites Harlan Howard, Bob McDill, Whitey Shafer, Bill Anderson and Hank Cochran as musical heroes, and how often does one hear that particular cluster mentioned?
Now, exactly 10 years later, Johnson stands as a songwriting hero in his own right for many aspiring artists. It’d be grossly unjustified to buy into the aforementioned analysis of The Guitar Song as a reason for Johnson’s long artistic hibernation. He’s mostly cited bad publishing deals and a bad concussion as reasons why there hasn’t yet been a follow-up to this album (outside of 2012’s tribute to Hank Cochran with Living For A Song, of course). Still, 10 years after its release, The Guitar Song does sound like the grand finale for a performer content with going back to the shadows and being a songwriter, first and foremost. The final song, “My Way To You,” is arguably the best song on the entire project, showcasing a much more rejuvenated Johnson spilling his heart out and admitting his shortcomings in placing the business of art over his own personal happiness. Not to say that Johnson was ever in danger of “selling out” after the success of That Lonesome Song, but The Guitar Song mostly centers around him rekindling that joy for writing a song that means the world to someone, even if the whole world doesn’t get to hear it. Music for the sake of music, in other words. And who knows? Maybe that spark will find its way back around again. One can only hope, because while I might prefer the tightness of That Lonesome Song, The Guitar Song is nothing short of Johnson’s second masterpiece.