Jamey Johnson: That Lonesome Song

jameyjohnson_thatlonesomesongGritty country self-portrait

Johnson’s second album took a lot of people by surprise, even those who’d enjoyed his 2006 debut, The Dollar. As engaging as was his first album, particularly for his moving baritone voice, what emerged two years later was a much darker, much deeper songwriter. Despite writing chart-topping hits (including George Strait’s “Give It Away” and Trace Adkins’ “Ladies Love Country Boys”), Johnson lost both his record deal and his wife, and hard living caught up to him. Retreating to his writer’s pen, Johnson poured his pain into this set of songs, initially released independently, and subsequently picked up by Mercury. It’s doubtful that an album this hard-core country could have been recorded under the watchful eye of a major label, particularly as a follow-up to a commercially stiff debut. Luckily for listeners, Johnson followed his own road and let the label play catch-up.

The reckoning at the album’s core is front and center in the opening song’s catch line, “the high cost of living ain’t nothing like the cost of living high.” Johnson imagines himself in prison, rummaging through the emotional wreckage left in the wake of a wasted, out-of-control life. He lingers over the painful moments, as if they’re a cilice worn in repentance, as if to hasten redemption. The music lingers as well, with slow waltzes, instrumental passages verging on country jams, and dripping steel guitar codas that wind down as last gasps of contrition. The recovery sought in this suite (the songs often segue without gaps) is to be found in a crooked line of ups and downs that bounce between the realities of a gritty present and the dreams of a hopeful future. You can hear Johnson writing his way out of the hole he’d dug, working through admission, decision, inventory, amends, awakening and sharing.

By opening and closing each song informally, as if the band is warming up to a groove and searching for definitive endings, Johnson gives the album a compelling, off-the-cuff storytelling device. There have been few country albums – not songs, but albums – in recent years that have this one’s thematic focus. Rodney Crowell’s recent string of autobiographical albums comes to mind, but few others compare. If Waylon Jennings had ever stopped to doubt his most painful life choices, he might have written an album like this. Allen Reynolds “Dreaming My Dreams,” made famous by Jennings, is sung here in a dissipated voice that recasts the song’s idle wondering into a quiet prayer for salvation. Johnson was clearly touched by something larger when he wrote this album, finding a route to recovery and having the external awareness to write about it. It’s not pretty, but it certainly is breathtaking. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

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