While the country music mainstream continues to set its sights on dominating the popular music milieu with a sound as slick (and a message as vapid) as any boy/girl band who has ever stormed the Top 40, singer-songwriter Jamey Johnson may be torn between the bright lights of superficial success and the Stetson brand laurels of the venerable cowboy bard.
On the one hand, Johnson is a deservedly well-respected songwriter in Nashville, having written (and/or co-written) songs that worked well for the likes of George Strait, Trace Adkins, Jessie James and Joe Nichols before his own performing career took off. On the other hand, one of those songs was the artistic and cultural black hole known as "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk," performed by Adkins. That song, the biggest hit Johnson has been a part of, is irredeemable as anything other than a crude joke.
And then, generally speaking, there are sappy, Hallmark-card qualities to some of the songs on Johnson's three official solo outings. That, however, is probably to be expected when you're trying to toe the line between solid country gold and actual Recording Industry Association of America gold. Lord knows the Willies, Waylons, Merles and Georges of the world have traveled that road in their time as well. Plus, Johnson's vocal chops are a marvel all their own.
That said, Johnson's biggest songs to date, "The Dollar," "In Color" and "Playing the Part" stand alongside his two latest offerings as proof that the man is more honky tonk than badonkadonk. Taken together, these three older songs showcase Johnson's talents well and lay bare his everyman concerns. How do I stay real and happy? What's really valuable in life?
Is he sentimental? Yes, but just enough to be relatively universal. His songs, rewardingly, are wrapped up in the great heartbreaks of contemporary American life. He's not judgmental, he doesn't have a savior complex, he just knows the spots that hurt and how to pick at them in plain but inventive song.
At the beginning of 2015, Johnson released two singles, his first new original music since 2010, in rather quick succession. It seemed like he was ramping up to a new album announcement at the time, but after a year we're still left merely to take these songs as they are: pretty damn good.
The first of these two songs — the aching song of self-centering and nostalgia "Alabama Pines" is akin to "Oklahoma Sunshine," the Hal Bynum and Bud Reneau joint that Waylon Jennings knocked out of the park on his 1974 album The Ramblin' Man. Details of "Pines" heroically deflated delivery aside, you know the narrative: I used to be there, but now I'm here, but I'll always be there in spirit. It's a fine song and one that showcases the gritty and emotive capabilities of Johnson's powerful voice, if not the freshness of his subject matter.
The second of two latest singles, on the other hand, is a total doozy. The song "You Can," a lost B-side from the mid-aughts, is a laidback hillbilly swing of a love song. In it, Johnson croons about a woman who can do the unthinkable, like making an Eskimo sweat or making ends meet in a difficult time or taming our wily speaker. It's a touching song and one can't help but wonder if, like his protagonist, Johnson can do the seemingly impossible by carving out a contemporary country career for himself that is as commercially successful as it is artistically respectable.