The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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November 9, 2012

Jeremiah Tucker: Johnson's music stripped of country's bravado

JOPLIN, Mo. — The Country Music Association Awards aired last week, and while I didn't watch it, I'm comfortable assuming Jamey Johnson would've been out of place.

Johnson has performed live in the glow of the country music mainstream before. He did a stirring 8-minute medley of George Jones songs for a celebration of the country legend's 80th birthday in 2011 at the Grand Ole Opry -- you can watch the performance on YouTube. He's also performed at the CMAs before. In 2009, Johnson won "song of the year" at the CMAs for his hit single "In Color," a song about the Greatest Generation.

But in almost every other way,   he's out of step with the music currently dominating the country charts. His latest album, "Livin' for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran," is a steady, reverent ode to the country songwriter responsible for such hits as Patsy Cline's "She's Got You" and Eddy Arnold's "Make the World Go Away."

Johnson was dropped by his label after one hit single and one underperforming album in 2006. But he came back a better, if bleaker, artist. If Taylor Swift is at one end of the spectrum, Johnson is decidedly at the opposite end -- the one where diehard purists tangle with hardscrabble truths.

Big-bellied and densely bearded with long, untidy hair, Johnson makes music like it's the early '70s. His last two albums, "That Lonesome Song" in 2008 and the ambitious double album "The Guitar Song" in 2010, are arguably the best country albums of the last 10 years.

Johnson clearly comes from the outlaw tradition, but his music is stripped of bravado, favoring melancholy over confrontation. When you look like Johnson, a former Marine, you don't have to act tough. It's implied.

On his latest album he duets with a number of living legends, including Merle Haggard, Leon Russell, Ray Price, George Strait, Bobby Bare, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. The music is spry, leaping from the countrypolitan sounds of the '60s to bar-room sing-alongs, demonstrating that Johnson's allegiance is to good songwriting, not a particular sound.

He plays the Buffalo Run Casino Nov. 30, and if you like country music, I'd recommend seeing him. He's among the best in the business.

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