POLLSTAR - feature
Country music has straddled a dichotomy for decades. Some fans like to see their heroes fly around arenas and spit fire, playing a twangy version of rock ’n’ roll. Others don’t go out so much; they sit at the end of a bar, feeding quarters into an old jukebox, paying homage to the long-lost sounds of Waylon, Willie and the boys. Who’s there for them?
According to many, it’s Jamey Johnson. He leans more toward the I-Love-This-Bar, barrel-chested grittiness of a Toby Keith than the pop-oriented, clean-living, family fun of other country artists.
His music includes references to World War II veterans, cocaine, prostitutes and John Deere tractors. His body is built by the Marines and years of running a construction company. He used to pick guitar, sitting atop Hank Williams’ tombstone in Alabama, drinking beer.
“I never thought we’d see the day where, if you came out with a traditional country song, you’re not just in the minority but you’re almost shunned for having done it,” Johnson told Pollstar.
Not anymore. At the time of the interview, he had just won the Academy of Country Music’s song of the year award for “In Color” and was taking a break after soundcheck at one of his many tour stops.
“Awards are nice and everything but they’re never going to be the focus of what we’re doing,” he said. “Our focus is bringing traditional country music to an audience that’s been starving for it and deserves it. They want it and it’s the kind of music that’s raised guys like me, and guys and girls like them. Our fear is that someday it’s not gonna be there.”
Johnson is a successful songwriter, co-writing the CMA and ACM 2007 song of the year, “Give It Away” by George Strait. Trace Adkins, George Jones and Joe Nichols have also recorded his tunes. But his debut album, That Lonesome Song, shot his career into the stratosphere. From People magazine to the Washington Post to the Dallas Morning News, it was proclaimed one of the best country albums of 2008. Comparisons to Waylon Jennings keep cropping up.
But it hasn’t been easy. Johnson was once signed to RCA and had a hit single in “The Dollar,” but that didn’t pan out after label mergers. Last year’s effort was more of the same, according to manager Terry Elam, with Music Row turning a cold shoulder.
“Every major label said ‘Love the project, love his voice, great songwriter, great singer. But there’s no place for this,’” Elam told Pollstar. “Except for Luke Lewis. Luke said all of those things plus ‘I want this. It deserves a home and it needs to be heard.’”
The signing to Mercury Nashville was the last piece of a puzzle. Johnson has had Elam and William Morris Agency’s Rick Shipp on his side for about seven years now. Johnson previously worked with agents Joey Lee and Tony Conway at Buddy Lee Attractions and they still say “Hi” and pat Johnson on the back.
“I think that’s the kind of thing you find in country music that’s not the same in other genres,” Johnson said. “The kinship is always there.”
As much as Johnson has been associated with songwriting awards and album sales, he stresses it’s all about live music. He’s hitting the stage all year playing the album plus up to two hours of traditional country tunes. Where his SRO crowds are coming from, he can’t tell and doesn’t care to analyze.
“I’m not sure if there is even a way to tell how much comes from the live shows and how much comes from the album or from word of mouth or what,” he said. “We’re not gonna go out there with a questionnaire and try to figure out where our people are coming from. We don’t have time for that shit.”
And things aren’t easy lately for Elam now that the ACM handed Johnson the big award.
“You go from a point where basically people say no to where everybody wants a piece of my time,” Elam said. “For the first time, People magazine wanted photographs. For the first time we were doing ‘Entertainment Tonight,’ things of that nature, when, 72 hours before, it wasn’t available.”
Elam said it’s been years since he’s seen an explosive impact like Johnson’s – and had to refer back to the early days of Vince Gill for an example. He’s been spending his days answering thousands of e-mails from fans who have felt a personal connection to Johnson’s songwriting.
And after Elam finished his interview with Pollstar, it was off to more Jamey Johnson-related activity.
“It’s Jamey-related distance that I’m putting between myself and a week of 12- and 14-hour days,” he said. “At 10:45 last night I was still answering e-mails and dealing with situations related to Jamey. So, basically, it’s a beautiful day here in the neighborhood and I can hear a golf course calling my name.”