When was the last time anybody in country music released a double studio album? Following up his stellar 2008 recording, That Lonesome Song, songwriter Jamey Johnson returns with the ambitious, sprawling 25-track The Guitar Song. The set's two discs are divided into thematic halves: the Black Album concerns itself primarily with darker, more complex situations in life, love, and loss, and the White Album focuses on more redemptive themes. It's not as simple as that, however; there is a yin-and-yang effect too, as evidenced by "Playing the Part," from the Black Album, which is an upbeat tune about surviving bad times in Hollywood. Likewise, "California Riots" is a nasty thumping outlaw number about sheer survival, but it's on the White Album. That balance is a part of Johnson's gift. Songs find their own way. The Guitar Song is uncompromising. Johnson's own accomplished road band — consisting of players symbiotically sympathetic to the material — provides the backing, and he gives his musicians room to really play, whether it's honky tonk Southern rock or bedroom or back-porch ballads. The sound is rougher edged than contemporary country; it comes from the Waylon Jennings/Hank Jr./David Allan Coe era. It rocks, but it also rolls. Johnson's chameleon-like ability as a writer and singer also affords him the luxury to collaborate with many of Nashville's current writing crop as well as veterans, all without compromising his vision as a narrative songwriter. He allows tough topics to rise from the heart and speak directly with whatever emotions they carry coming to the fore. Check the title track (with a guest appearance by Bill Anderson); the broken love songs "Cover Your Eyes" and "Thankful for the Rain"; the brutally lonesome "That's How I Don't Love You Anymore"; the Merle Haggard-influenced "Even the Skies Are Blue" and "Good Morning Sunrise" (which are the best vocal performances on the album); the front-porch reminiscence in "By the Seat of Your Pants"; the tough, soulful, gospel-influenced blues of "Macon"; and the lilting closer, "My Way to You." Likewise, his choice of covers — including "Lonely at the Top" (a little-known Keith Whitley honky tonk tune), Mel Tillis' classic "Mental Revenge," Hank Cochran's "Set "Em Up Joe," and Kris Kristofferson's forlorn "For the Good Times" — are all executed with the necessary spit, grit, and empathy, and display Johnson's considerable talent as an interpretive singer. The arguments as to whether The Guitar Song is as good as the beloved That Lonesome Song don't matter. What does matter is what The Guitar Song accomplishes: it makes plain the music contemporary country is trying to erase, while being a thoroughly accessible modern offering. Given its wonderfully crafted and performed material and stellar production, it is the country album of 2010.