The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

November 9, 2012

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

By Jeremiah Tucker
Globe Columnist

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.


If you're tuning into "The Voice," anticipating the new season of "American Idol" or watch "Glee" every week for a dose of music on network television, you might also consider checking out "Nashville," the surprisingly great show about two divas -- one aging and the other fresh-faced, battling for country music supremacy.

I began watching the show because I like Connie Britton, the actress who plays the older country star struggling to remain relevant, and I was surprised to discover it's great. It's serious-minded, but with enough soapiness to make it fun. And it takes the music seriously.

The executive producer for the series is T. Bone Burnett, who has overseen the music for the movies "Crazy Heart," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Walk the Line" and produced music for scores of legends, including the terrific Robert Plant and Alison Krauss collaboration "Raising Sand."

Every episode features a lot of music with the actual cast members handling the vocals. The scenes stick with the songs just long enough for them to sound as good as they're supposed to be in the narrative, like looking at a brand new race car without getting close enough to check under the hood.

Burnett has always specialized in spare, natural recordings that focus on the voice, and the show gets a lot of mileage out of striking performances taking place with acoustic guitar and harmonies in Nashville's bars and coffee shops.

Going forward, the show has indicated its musical performances will only get more ambitious. Dan Auberbach, one half of the rock group Black Keys, is producing one of the show's upcoming songs, an unrecorded Lucinda Williams-penned tune that will be performed by Britton's character on the show.