Glower power: Down-and-dirty country roots help Jamey Johnson's career bloom
By Chris Richards
NEW YORK -- One of the greatest country singers of our time lives beneath a mountain of hair and bramble of beard worthy of the Old Testament or the 1970s -- the whiskey-soaked glory days of Waylon and Willie, Cash and Hag.
And while he's been championed as an outlaw in the grand tradition of those hard-living Nashville nonconformists, Jamey Johnson would like to take a moment to spit on his reputation: "There ain't anything more outlaw about us than being double-parked out here in New York City."
Laugh. It's a joke. He's only terrifying most of the time.
Holed up in the darkness of his tour bus on a sunny Thursday afternoon, Johnson puffs weed from a black ceramic pipe, grins at his own jokes and scolds his pit-bull-mutt Hank for licking himself. But even when a smile manages to form beneath that tangled beard, his brow stays furrowed, like a tectonic plate capable of unleashing chaos were it to budge a millimeter. When Johnson performs on "Late Show With David Letterman" a few hours later, his scowl remains fixed, glowering into 3 million living rooms across the country.
The 35-year-old Alabama native has come to Manhattan to push his new double album, "The Guitar Song," an ambitious 25-song sequel to his last album, "That Lonesome Song." That 2008 opus, littered with ruminations on drug addiction, depression, divorce and other American nightmares, stands as the most profound country album of the past decade. And its unexpected success presented Johnson not only as a grizzled anomaly on country's spray-tanned airwaves, but as one of the genre's strongest new songwriters.
But he wasn't new. For years, Johnson had been co-writing hits for the likes of George Strait (2006's plaintive "Give It Away") and Trace Adkins (2005's quirky "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk"). With his Grammy-nominated 2008 single "In Color," Johnson finally scored a hit of his own.
He didn't care.
"A hit is what they call it after the success," he says. "I can't be focused on whatever the [expletive] a hit is. [Expletive] hits. I got no time for hits. I write songs. I write music. And I put music on my albums and I deliver that to people. And I go out there every night to play my music to people who come to see our shows. And if they enjoy it, we got a good deal worked out."
Outside the bus on Letterman's West 53rd Street sidewalk, Johnson's band mates are chain-smoking the butterflies away. They describe their leader with a terse enthusiasm: Generous. Temperamental. Loyal. Guarded. And in many ways, empowering.
"We don't have the handcuffs that everybody else has in Nashville," says guitarist Jason "Rowdy" Cope. "Every other country band you ever see, you're looking at a band full of robots. They take young, good-looking haircuts out on the road."
When longtime guitarist Wayd Battle first met Johnson at an open-mike/pumpkin-carving contest in 2003, he recognized the singer's integrity immediately. "I never call Jamey Johnson an act," Battle says. "Because he ain't acting like anything."
Raised in Alabama -- where Hank Williams was born and buried -- Johnson grew up on Southern rock, church hymns and heavy metal, but always felt "most at home" with country music. "We lived in a trailer off in the wilderness," he says. "Metallica don't sound right when it echoes off the trees. But Don Williams does quite well out there."
He served in the Marine Corps Reserve during his semesters at Jacksonville State and Auburn University at Montgomery, but never saw a degree -- or combat. "I got my discharge the same week that everybody else got their orders," Johnson says.
He arrived in Nashville in 2000 and quickly learned how to temper big dreams with great patience. "For some people, the drive is so hard to become successful that they forget what the definition of successful is," Johnson says. "They might sign bad publishing deals, or they might sign a bad management deal. . . . Man, it's just horror stories you hear. They're wounded as a result of their own passion. . . . That was hard to see and it taught me to take a step back and be sure of every little detail before you move forward. . . . I don't care who's in a hurry to get something signed."
Everything about Johnson feels just as deliberate. He speaks and sings in the same unhurried baritone -- and his songs unfold at tempos that allow emotions to surface in poignant detail. His 2008 single "High Cost of Living" is a crushing confession cast in such high definition, it'll make you wince. "I had a job and a piece of land, and my sweet wife was my best friend," Johnson groans. "But I traded that for cocaine and a whore."
But ask Johnson about the experiences that inspired his most harrowing lyrics and he redefines uncomfortable silence.
"Ain't there anything better to talk about?" he asks. "Thinking about how low life can get is not something I like to do in my spare time. It's a place I choose not to go to."
A punishing pause.
"Ain't there anything better to talk about?"
* * *
Inside the Ed Sullivan Theater, drummer Chris Powell looks cold. He's sporting a sleeveless T-shirt from the metal band Pantera and the studio thermostat is locked at a frosty 48 degrees. Pedal steel player "Cowboy" Eddie Long is peeling off ribbons of treble and Johnson comes lumbering out under the klieg lights to sound-check "Lonely at the Top," a Keith Whitley song about how the heights of fame can feel grievously low. Backstage, Jack Hanna's assistants are wrangling a cheetah the size of a small horse. It's not just lonely at the top -- it's weird, too.
After the taping, Johnson's bus trundles south to the Meatpacking District for a concert at the Highline Ballroom. The singer isn't fond of this hustle. "I've said yes to way too many things this year. Next year, I'm going to say no to a few more things," he says. "It's not my career I'm taking control of, it's my life."
But he says control has never been an issue with the brass at Mercury Records, for whom he cites a deep respect. Perhaps it's because he's made his expectations clear. "I don't accept anybody's reins," Johnson says. "You put a shackle on me, it just means we're fixing to fight. You gotta whip my ass before you walk me around on a shackle, you know what I mean? That's the point I stand with any man. I don't care who you are. That ain't how I was taught to work with somebody."
Mercury didn't flinch at the idea of releasing "The Guitar Song" as a double-disc set, and Johnson sees the album as a nod to fans. "If people are going to buy an album, that's a trip into town for most people," he says. "I'ma make sure they come home with all they can have."
* * *
At the Highline, he gives them a sprawling, two-hour performance without a set list -- his band knows what's coming only when Johnson starts the first verse. "I'm up every morning before the sunshine comes rolling in," he bellows and the players slide into a new song, "Can't Cash My Checks." In the refrain, Johnson croons to his creditors: "You can bring me down, but you can't make me beg/You can take my word, but you can't cash my checks."
Along with other downcast fare from "The Guitar Song," he covers "Take This Job and Shove It" and Bob Seger's "Turn the Page," stomping over each well-trodden chorus with fresh ire. Were he to take a crack at "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" tonight -- a song essentially about butts -- he would undoubtedly mutter it with the menace of a leering drunk. From Johnson's lungs, everything sounds slower, heavier. Each syllable is a brick dipped in motor oil. He may not speak of his demons, but he can't help but sing them.
"Music is the release for all of it," Johnson says. "Whatever the hell is going on in your life is going to come out in your music. Just can't help it. Once you start playing and singing, it just bores out."
Jamey Johnson is scheduled to open for Hank Williams Jr. at the George Mason University Patriot Center on Oct. 9.
September 15, 2010; 10:10 AM ET
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