The chequered career of Jamey Johnson has been recounted many times by now. He started out with the sentimental hit single ‘The Dollar’ on BNA in 2006. The solid album of the same title (produced by the estimable Buddy Cannon) was a fine and under-rated record (with some flaws), but the label made a catastrophic choice of follow-up single, the stupid ‘Rebelicious’ (along the same lines as the worst song Jamey has ever been involved in writing, Trace Adkins’s horrible hit ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’). When this failed to chart at all, Jamey was dropped by the label, coinciding with the failure of his marriage, and he descended into a spiral of despair. The artistic legacy of this time was the body of songs which make up the magisterial That Lonesome Song and provided an unlikely comeback for Jamey.
The bad times inspired Jamey’s songwriting to take a new, devastatingly honest, turn. He was getting a number of cuts by other artists, ranging from the aforementioned ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk’ to George Strait’s hit ‘Give it Away’. He recorded the bulk of That Lonesome Song on his own, with his band, the Kent Hardly Playboys, credited as producers, and released it himself digitally in 2007. Mercury Records’ Luke Lewis knew a good thing when he heard it, and signed Jamey to a new deal the following year, re-releasing That Lonesome Song with a couple of track changes.
Jamey was responsible for writing a dozen of the fourteen songs, the quality of which is consistently high. Jamey’s voice does not have the greatest range, but his rough-edged voice is capable of conveying real emotional depth, as he does to devastating effect on most of the songs here. The overall effect is of a man baring his soul to the world.
The moving ‘In Color’ became Jamey’s most successful single, peaking at #9 in January 2009, and winning various nominations as Song or Single of the Year. Beautifully constructed by Jamey with his co-writers, James Otto and Lee Thomas Miller, it was originally pitched to Trace Adkins, who generously relinquished it when Jamey signed his new deal. The deeply affecting story frames an old man’s recollections by having him showing old black and white photographs to his grandson, showing his childhood struggles in the Depression, the terrors of war service, and finally the happy memories of a wedding day, telling the boy how much more intense each experience was in real life:
And if it looks like we were scared to death
Like a couple of kids trying to save each other
You should’ve seen it in color
The emotional force of the song is gradually built up through the three stories. Radio-only listeners may have got a somewhat misleading impression of Jamey as an artist, based on this and ‘The Dollar’.
If the album has a fault, it lies for me in the sometimes self-indulgent snippets of talk and laughter between some of the tracks. It opens with the least objectionable of these, a slightly contrived introduction which purports to reveal Jamey released from prison, leading both literally and thematically into the outstanding ‘High Cost Of Living’, which he wrote with James Slater. While it was not directly autobiographical, the emotional underpinning of the story recounted here was undoubtedly inspired by Jamey’s descent following the loss of his original record deal and the failure of his marriage. Dark and uncompromising, this frank confession of addiction, sin and loss, and the hard price the protagonist ends up paying as he comes to realize,
The high cost of living ain’t nothing like the cost of living high
is extraordinarily intense, and one of the finest songs written in the past decade. With its reference to exchanging his home and wife “for cocaine and a whore”, this was always a risky choice as a single given the increasingly family-friendly nature of country radio, and although it charted briefly, it peaked at #34.
The steel-led guilt-ridden ‘Angel’, written with Jeff Bates, another man with a history of substance abuse undermining relationships, has a mid-divorce Jamey brooding wearily over his relationship with his ex, “the girl I once called my best friend”:
And the line between evil and good disappears
And now it’s so hard to tell
Am I shaking a demon that’s after my soul
Or sending an angel to Hell?
This is another genuinely great song. Another highlight is ‘Mary Go Round’, written with Wyatt Beard. This anguished ballad pictures a woman who follows her erring husband into degradation:
When I slipped and fell
It drove her to Hell…
Mary, I wish you’d stop taking your heartache to town
Why can’t you see
Free love ain’t free
You’ll spin til you fall to the ground
Mary I wish that you’d never found the merry-go-round
Even the mellow ‘Place Out On The Ocean’ has sadness at its heart. Opening with the sound of a plane setting down, it places Jamey at a Florida paradise, but he confesses,
All that I can think about is you
Similarly, ‘Women’ (written with Jim Brown), appears on the surface to be a man’s light hearted and perplexed look at gender differences (an impression reinforced by the playful production), but underlying that, he notes,
I’ve made ‘em go insane and I’ve made ‘em go away
I just can’t ever seem to make one stay
In a change of tone, the angry and bluesy ‘Mowing Down The Roses’ (written with Jeremy Popoff), the abandoned husband takes a mordant satisfaction in vindictively destroying his errant spouse’s favourite possessions. Although it is a well-written song in its own right, it tends to feel out of place on the album, perhaps because it lacks the sense of a man scouring his soul and confessing his sins which pervades many of the songs. Although it was never formally released as a radio single, a video was made to promote this track.
Jamey teamed up with Alabama’s Teddy Gentry to write two songs: the wistfully nostalgic ‘The Last Cowboy’ (alongside Rob Hatch), and the beautiful ‘Stars Over Alabama’. Gentry adds backing vocals on both these tracks, and plays bass on the latter, an emotional take on homesickness and loneliness framed around a telephone call with his mother, who advises:
God put stars in Alabama
You just can’t find in Tennessee
The same ones are waiting on that taught you how to dream
She said there’s big names up in Nashville
And you’ll be one before too long
But God put stars in Alabama
To help you find your way back home
In the title track (written with Wayd Battle and Kendell Marvel), Jamey wakes up in a car after a bender and finds music epitomising his life:
Discovered I’d been wrong for so long
I thought it was the fame and the glory and the money
But all I’ve got to show is a damn song
And it’s sad and it’s long
Can’t nobody sing along
Interestingly, Buddy Cannon, producer of The Dollar, co-wrote ‘Between Jennings And Jones’, another overtly autobiographical tune about Jamey’s career to date, which closes the album (and was one of the tracks added to the Mercury reissue):
Some record executives found me one night…
Put my name on an album but they shelved all my songs
Of the artists to whose career Jamey compares his own in this song, he had already managed to get George Jones to sing a cameo on a track on The Dollar. On the new record he paid tribute to Waylon Jennings by choosing to cover two songs recorded by the latter on his classic Dreaming My Dreams album in 1975 (the year of Jamey’s birth). ‘The Door Is Always Open’, written by Dickey Lee and Bob McDill (and a #1 hit for Dave & Sugar) is addressed to the woman who has left him for an unfulfilling marriage to a rich man, and is given a straight country reading. The gently regretful country standard ‘Dreaming My Dreams With You’ (written by Allen Reynolds), meanwhile, is as close as Jamey gets to pretty.
This album is a towering achievement, which Jamey himself will probably never equal. It has sold over 600,000 copies, which is impressive considering it only had one real hit single and the somber mood flies in the face of everything the major labels seem to think country fans want. It really is an essential part of any serious fan’s collection.