THE 9513.COM – Jamey Johnson CD Review
Album Review: Jamey Johnson – The Guitar Song
By Chris Neal
September 10th, 2010
Jamey Johnson recorded his breakthrough album, That Lonesome Song, on his own dime—and since he was paying the bills, he got to do things his way. That meant that when he decided the tracks should be broken up by keening steel-guitar interludes, or that the character in “High Cost of Living” should be brutally honest about the details of his cocaine abuse, there was no record-label A&R person to tell him those things were against the rules. And when a major label dared to pick up That Lonesome Song and it became a gold-selling hit record, no one could tell him what to do on the follow-up, either. Record labels know better than to mess with a winning formula, and letting Jamey Johnson have his way is a winning formula. So when he tells you that the follow-up to That Lonesome Song is going to be a double album conceptually divided into “black” and “white” discs, you swallow hard and agree.
Yet for all the talk of Johnson as a modern-day outlaw, it’s not as if The Guitar Song exists in an altogether different universe from the rest of modern country music. The roster of co-writers with whom he collaborates includes familiar Nashville names like Rivers Rutherford, Dean Miller, Buddy Cannon, Vicky McGehee, Chris DuBois, Ashley Gorley and David Lee Murphy. The subject matter covered isn’t so unusual—Johnson mostly addresses the eternal subjects of love, loss, God, country music and a preference for rural life over the big city. Johnson is reverent toward his elders, scattering faithful covers among his originals. More mainstream-friendly artists like Randy Houser, James Otto and Kacey Coppola turn up in the credits as co-writers, backup singers or both. Even Johnson’s appearance has been hailed as revolutionary, but what’s a little extra facial hair among friends?
So it’s the small but fundamental differences that make The Guitar Song, like its predecessor, stand out so strongly. Little things like letting his road band, the Kent Hardley Playboys (also credited as producers), not only play on the record but really play. Tracks like “Can’t Cash My Checks,” “By the Seat of Your Pants” and “California Riots” push into six- and seven-minute territory because the Playboys are allowed to stretch out and jam, riding each groove until it reaches its logical conclusion. The songs on The Guitar Song often seem to gradually disassemble themselves into their component parts, then reassemble into the next song. There’s also that bifurcated sequencing, which places Johnson’s darker material on the first half of the album and (relatively) lighter songs on the second. It’s symptomatic of Johnson’s genius that his more upbeat fare is just as compelling as his hard luck stories and tales of shattered love, a trick few artists can pull off.
And that’s what really sets Johnson apart: he’s just really damn good. The Guitar Song includes a handful of songs that immediately sound like classics. “Even the Skies Are Blue,” “Cover Your Eyes,” “Can’t Cash My Checks,” “Heartache” and the closing “My Way to You” all sit pretty next to covers of deathless classics like “For the Good Times” and “Set ‘Em Up Joe.” The album’s sheer size is daunting—25 songs spread across an hour and 45 minutes of music—but there are no weak spots, not one track that cries out to be jettisoned. Some will argue, as is always the case with a double album, that a single album of the best material would be even more potent. But the extra breathing room allows Johnson’s themes to play out, interact and build upon one another, making The Guitar Song greater than the sum of its considerable parts. May it sell a great many copies, so that Jamey Johnson continues to get his way.