A rough-hewn reservist from the Marine Corps with a deep, ragged baritone and a hard-country sensibility that recalls both vintage George Jones and Steve Earle, Jamey Johnson is a difficult sell to modern mainstream country audiences, but his first album, 2005’s The Dollar, was quite rightly championed by both traditionalists and Outlaw country fans. Johnson’s sophomore effort, That Lonesome Song, is arguably an even harder sell; it’s diametrically opposed in style and content to Sugarland’s Love on the Inside, currently ruling country’s album and singles charts. With his tales of cocaine, whores and smoking pot in church parking lots, Johnson stands at odds with the populist uplift pabulum that’s currently fashionable in the genre. Like Dale Watson or Drive-By Truckers, Johnson seems too country for country, which makes it all the more remarkable that Lonesome is being released by one of Music Row’s major labels.
While Johnson’s outsider perspective makes him instantly distinctive among a fleet of Tim McGraw and Keith Urban clones, it’s not the supposed “authenticity” of his hard-living tales that makes his work superior to so many of his contemporaries. Instead, it’s his exemplary songcraft. Johnson may look like one of David Allan Coe’s bodyguards, but the man can turn one hell of a phrase and spin a remarkable narrative. On lead single “In Color,” he outright explodes the genre’s clichéd “advice from elders” trope with an expertly crafted story of a grandfather telling his grandson about the hardships of life during the Great Depression that his old black-and-white photographs don’t show. It’s a song of the kind of genuine insight that’s increasingly rare in mainstream country, and it’s subversive in its view of overly sentimental, simple nostalgia. It’s one of the finest country songs in recent memory, but it has plenty of good company on the album. “High Cost of Living” is a refreshingly blunt cautionary tale (which, again, undermines what’s currently trendy within the genre), and “Mowin’ Down the Roses” is a kiss-off song of vicious, biting wit.
It’s a good thing that Johnson is an exceptional songwriter, since his voice isn’t immediately inviting. He’s a hard country singer of the purest sort, and it’s easy to overlook a thoughtful sense of phrasing because of the gruffness in his somewhat flat baritone. For most of these songs, his rough vocals are a good fit with the content and the boozy, honky-tonk production by the Kent Hardly Playboys. But Johnson’s limitations are brought to the forefront on some of the ballads, particularly “Dreaming My Dreams,” which served as the title track for Patty Loveless’s final major label album. Even if Johnston himself isn’t the most compelling vocalist, this collection repeatedly makes it clear why so many of the genre’s greatest singers are drawn to his songs. Because such things tend to occur in cycles and relatively edgy, progressive artists like Gary Allan and Miranda Lambert have been making some mainstream inroads, country music seems primed for a new genuine Outlaw movement (and not the just-for-show Music Mafia posturing of Big & Rich). That Lonesome Song has the point of view, style and sheer quality of craft to kick off such a movement; even if that doesn’t happen, it’s one of the best, purest country albums to come out of Nashville in ages.