USA TODAY – Jamey Johnson Feature
Jamey Johnson's 'Guitar' puts a new strum on country music
By Brian Mansfield
Jamey Johnson drives the last car Waylon Jennings owned, and he rents office space that the late guitarist and producer Chet Atkins once occupied. But the acclaimed singer and songwriter, whose new album is The Guitar Song, doesn't see himself as a collector of country music history. He views himself more as a caretaker.
"There's no magic in those things at all, they're just things," says Johnson at the control board in Nashville's RCA Studio A, where Atkins oversaw the recording of many country hits. "But to me, they're constant reminders. Everywhere I look, there's something else I need to be careful with. I don't ever feel like I own those things; I'm just looking after them till I can pass them on.
"Traditional country music is a lot the same way with me. I'm not really in charge of anything right now; I'm just looking after it till I can leave it to somebody else."
These days, Johnson, 35, appears to be doing a fine job taking care of the music. After having co-written singles like George Strait's Give It Awayand Trace Adkins' Honky Tonk Badonkadonk, the Alabama native hit on his own in 2008 with In Color, which reviewed a life's worth of black-and-white photographs and concluded, "You should have seen it in color."
In Color took top-song honors from both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association, though it peaked only at No. 7 on USA TODAY's country airplay chart. That Lonesome Song, the album that contained In Color, has sold more than 831,000 units and still averages 3,000-plus each week, more than two years after its release.
The Guitar Song doubles down on Johnson's past success. An impressive set in quantity (25 tracks) and quality, it recalls the outlaw tradition of Jennings and Willie Nelson in both the tone of the songs and the way it willfully runs counter to country music's prevailing business wisdom. The album made its debut atop Billboard's country albums chart last month and has sold 114,000 copies.
Though Music Row still relies largely on radio to sell albums, there's no obvious smash: Current single Playing the Part has barely cracked the top 40. At a time when some labels have decreased the number of songs offered on an album, Johnson is releasing two discs' worth of material.
"When we got done, we noticed that the songs were almost split down the middle, in terms of that target emotion that they draw out," Johnson says. Using the Chinese concept of yin and yang, he sequenced the songs according to the emotions they elicited. "We put half our songs on a 'black' album and half our songs on a 'white' album. And we started them off in terms of what level they would be on that side of the scale."
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