When you get your mainstream music break as the co-writer of Trace Adkins' "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk," perhaps the most annoying record of the past decade, it's a lot to overcome. But somehow Jamey Johnson has managed to do so.
A successful songwriter who has penned singles for the likes of Adkins, George Strait, Joe Nichols, and James Otto, Johnson made his recording debut with 2006's The Dollar and was perceived as a major new country artist in some circles, an opinion that proved prophetic but was presumptuous based on the evidence at the time.
The Dollar is a good record for what it is. With a warm, rough voice and confident delivery honed by nearly a decade as a local Alabama player, Johnson certainly didn't sound like a prefabricated country newbie. But there's an artificial, reaching quality to the songwriting.
The title track/lead single was a minor hit and is reasonably, if cloyingly, effective. But the self-penned song is still sentimental, high-concept Nashville songcraft: A mother explains to her young son that his father goes to work because his employer "pays him for his time" and the kid starts saving nickels and dimes to purchase himself a father/son fishing trip. The follow-up single, the embarrassing "Badonkadonk" rewrite "Rebelicious," might have survived its naked opportunism with more wit, but instead it was like this: "Rides Harley's, reads Vogue/She's got a tattoo on her ankle, Rebel flags on her toes."
When Johnson wasn't searching for a hit, he seemed to be trying to compete with Toby Keith as a blustery but crafty Bocephus inheritor with "Ray Ray's Juke Joint" and "The Redneck Side of Me," though Johnson displayed far less interest in latching onto right-wing politics.
These showier songs obscured better material that suggested what Johnson later proved capable of. "My Saving Grace" included the image of kids stepping over a hung-over father in the hallway on the way to Sunday school. "Keeping Up With the Jonesin'" — in which George Jones himself comes aboard for a closing chorus — is a slow-burn honky-tonk song that's a little too unreconstructed for modern Nashville.
Johnson was dropped from his label after "Rebelicious" failed to chart, and his marriage fell apart. Though he still paid the bills by writing for others, he went into semi-seclusion to work on his own music. He emerged a couple of years later with one of the decade's best country albums.
That Lonesome Song was initially self-released by Johnson online, where it caught the attention of Mercury Nashville, which signed Johnson and released the record.
The album opens with a skit, "Released," that signifies outlaw but also artistic freedom. And the song it opens into, "High Cost of Living," is a stunner.
A little steel guitar intro is joined by deliberate acoustic strums and then Johnson's voice, describing a normal life torn apart by a walk on the wild side.
This is Steve Earle/Johnny Cash territory, an unsentimental tale of falling off the wagon, hard. Johnson is unflinching about buying drugs, getting arrested, ruining a marriage — "My sweet wife was my best friend but I traded that for cocaine and a whore" — but also coldly sardonic: "That Southern Baptist parking lot was where I'd go to smoke my pot."
The song was too good to not be a single. But it was not a hit. Taking on the blame at the outset, however, impacts the core batch of rueful divorce songs that follow.
A rich interplay of steel guitar and organ sets the tone on what is largely an album of deep-country ballads. On "Angel," Johnson surveys the wreckage: "We drank from the fountain of good times and dreaming/But these lawyers have poisoned the well/And as our love is dying, they're makin' a killing/Off of heartache and furniture sales."
On "Mowin' Down the Roses," Johnson sings, "I know I should be hurting but I'm smiling ear to ear," but his delivery outs his self-deception. The scenario is deftly drawn: "I loaded up your closets/Into 15 garbage bags/And I smoked 'em with your potpourri/On a burn pile in the back" is a clincher. That "potpourri" shows that Johnson isn't faking his familiarity with small-town, Southern women. But the song is delivered as more of a dirge. Johnson is acting out but not really bragging about it.
And when Johnson turns to his newly single life, his approach is richly, tellingly dutiful. "Place Out on the Ocean" opens with the line, "Hanging with the two-bit ladies." And on the Waylon Jennings-identified cover "The Door Is Always Open," he joylessly tempts a married friend.
This level of honesty and artistry also impacts the more calculated songs on the album. If the best thing on That Lonesome Song is "High Cost of Living," the second best is Johnson's biggest hit to date and a song that, on the surface, is pure Nashville songcraft. "In Color," which made Top 10 on the country charts, could be a Kodak jingle. It's sung in the voice of an old man recounting his life to a grandson — surviving the Great Depression, fighting World War II, getting married — via a series of cherished photographs. But Johnson's writing is crisp, detailed, and understated, and his delivery is tough and direct. For all I know, "In Color" could be as much a songwriting exercise as "The Dollar" surely is, but Johnson makes you believe every word and feel every emotion.
The album closes with a pair of songs that also depart from the album's theme and point toward a post-breakup-album future. "Stars in Alabama" is at once a terrific road song and a terrific mama song, and the closing, autobiographical career anthem "Between Jennings and Jones" might seem presumptuous on the surface, but there's no denying the veracity of the phrase pinpointing both Johnson's current style and his place on the record-store racks. And besides, however unlikely it may be, That Lonesome Song is an album that warrants the comparison.