Jamey Johnson’s much-anticipated follow-up to That Lonesome Song was finally released last week, laying to rest the fears expressed by some that he would be unable to match that dark 2008 masterpiece. The two discs in the set are grouped loosely by theme into the “black” and “white” albums, the former supposedly comprised of darker, more menacing songs like its predecessor, and the latter made up of more positive fare. In reality, this seems to be more marketing hype than anything, as the definition of what is dark and menacing as opposed to positive turns out not to be so — well, black and white, if you’ll pardon the pun. After listening to a digital copy of the first disc, I wasn’t quite sure if I’d just heard the black or white album. The issue of which songs belong on which disc, however, is a minor quibble that in no way detracts from the listener’s enjoyment.
Like its predecessor, The Guitar Song is made up of mostly original material — Johnson wrote or co-wrote 20 of the 25 tracks — and a handful of covers of country classics. His band, The Kent Hardly Playboys are once again present and credited as producers, with Dave Cobb and Arlis Albritton listed as co-producers on a few selected tracks.
The black album opens with “Lonely At The Top”, written in 1988 by Don Cook, Chick Rains and the late Keith Whitley. A demo of Whitley’s version exists, but as far as I’m aware, this is the first time the song has been commercially recorded and released. It tells the tale of a rising country music star who complains about the pressures of fame and fortune to a stranger in a bar. The stranger accepts the singer’s offer of a drink, responding:
… Thanks, I’ll have a double
I’ve worked up a powerful thirst
Just listening to all your troubles
And while he makes that drink,
I’ll smoke one, if you’ve got ’em
It might be lonely at the top
But it’s a bitch at the bottom.
The next track, “Cover Your Eyes”, written with Wayd Battle and Bobby Bare, is decidedly darker fare, in which the protagonist breaks up with his girlfriend over the telephone. “Poor Man Blues” is sounds like something David Allan Coe would have sung back in his heyday. The tune, though not the lyrics, are reminiscent of Coe’s 1983 hit “The Ride.” Next is Johnson’s tribute to the late, great Vern Gosdin, a cover of “Set ‘Em Up Joe”, the highlight of the first disc.
“Can’t Cash My Checks”, which Jamey wrote with James Otto, Jason Cope, and Shannon Lawson, is a timely tale of a man struggling in hard economic times, to which many listeners will unfortunately be able to relate. Of all the tracks on the first disc, this one seems the most likely to be released as a single at some point.
Nothing on the black disc was as bleak and desperate as the songs on That Lonesome Song. Based solely on the marketing hype, I was expecting to want to slash my wrists after listening to it; however, I found it much more enjoyable than I had expected. I didn’t think that the white disc could possibly live up to the high standards set by the black disc and after hearing the first track on Disc 2, the slightly disappointing “By The Seat Of Your Pants” — which is a bit more Southern Rock for my taste, it appeared that I was correct. However, things began to improve with track #2, “California Riots” — which seems like it should have been on the black disc — and the unusual “Dog In The Yard”, which I really liked. The title track, on which Johnson is joined by co-writer Bill Anderson, is a gem. It is followed by the best song in the collection, “That’s Why I Write Songs”, a stripped-down song consisting solely of Johnson singing lead vocals and playing an acoustic guitar. Recorded at The Ryman Auditorium, it gives the listener a rare glimpse of Johnson’s sensitive side, as he pays tribute to the great songwriters who inspired him — a list that includes Harlan Howard, Bob McDill, Whitey Shafer, Bill Anderson, and Hank Cochran.
Things swing back into Southern Rock mode with “Macon” and back into Outlaw Country with “Good Times Ain’t What They Used To Be”, on which Johnson channels Waylon Jennings. This is followed by a surprisingly good cover version of “For The Good Times”, the Kris Kristofferson classic made famous by Ray Price. It’s worth listening to if only for Eddie Long’s magnificent steel guitar work.
Overall, this is a very satisfying album, without the pop pretensions and overwrought production that mar so many contemporary country releases. The utilization of Johnson’s road band gives the album a more live feel than most studio recordings. The band often breaks into lengthy jam sessions at the end of certain tracks — a bit too lengthy at times, bordering on self-indulgence. Fans of bubble-gum pop country will find little here to appeal to them, but those who yearn for the type of country music that Nashville used to produce with regularity, will be more than satisfied. This is without a doubt one of the best albums of 2010, and one that deserves a home in any country fan’s collection.