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"My dream already came true," Jamey Johnson says. "All I ever wanted was to just to get to ride around and sing country music."

 

For a lot of country music fans, Johnson is their dream come true. He’s the real deal, a true country singer, rather than a pop artist who owes what little country he can claim to a cowboy hat, a pair of boots, a swagger, and a sometimes affected twang in the voice. The mainstream audience has occasionally embraced such pretenders and made them multi-millionaires, but they fade faster than a pair of Levis. True aficionados of country music prefer the artist whose boot heels are worn down from walking the hard, rocky roads of life, whose struggles and hardships inform his songs. He sings from the heart and soul, the way Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings did, and the way that Merle Haggard still does. Johnson’s manager, Arlis Albritton, says "Jamie is most distinctive because he is himself. As a songwriter he writes what he knows and lives what he writes."

 

"I just take stuff from life and put it to sound," Johnson says. "Whatever the hell is going on in your life is going to come out in your music. You can never go wrong, coming out and just bearing your soul."

 

With his long hair, beard, penetrating blue eyes, and a snarl in his voice, Johnson has been called Nashville’s "gruffest and grittiest star" by Rolling Stone. He doesn’t look or sound like a man you’d want to fool with, and some have suggested he’s leading a new Outlaw movement in country music. Interviewed by The Washington Post before an appearance on David Letterman’s late night show, Johnson dismissed such notions. "There ain’t anything more outlaw about us than being double-parked out here in New York City."

 

Born July 14, 1975 in Enterprise, Alabama, Johnson was raised in Montgomery. "Music was fundamental in my family," he recalls. "Sang at bars, all the way to church on Sunday. Music in school, played guitar pulls at the house, go to other people’s houses and break out the guitars, it was fun. It was always there, I’ve just been a part of it."

 

Unlike most country musicians, Johnson was formally trained and was studying music theory while still in high school. He listened to different kinds of music, including gospel and heavy metal, but country music cast the strongest spell. "We lived in a trailer off in the wilderness," he remembers. "Metallica don’t sound right when it echoes off the trees. But Don Williams does quite well out there."

 

It’s hardly surprising that Johnson cites Hank Williams as an influence. "One of the first songs I learned how to play was a Hank Williams song that I’d learned from a book." In his teens, Johnson sometimes visited the great man’s grave in Montgomery, singing songs before his tombstone. "Hank Williams was the first rock 'n’ roller just by lifestyle."

 

He spent two years studying at Jacksonville State University in Montgomery, then served eight years in the Marine Corps Reserve but was discharged without having seen combat. "I enjoyed it while I was in and I also remember that I couldn’t wait to get out," he told Melissa Parker of Smashing Interviews. Johnson may have carried a rifle as a Marine, but his guitar was always close at hand. "I used to take my guitar out into the fields with the marines, sit around and play them boys songs."

 

Once free of academic and military life, he moved to Nashville to pursue his passion for music, arriving in the country music capital on New Year’s Day 2000. Success did not come overnight, but Johnson wasn’t expecting it to. "You know, everything works out the way their supposed to, anyway. The doors didn’t necessarily open for us, but we managed to kick them in over time."

 

At first, he didn’t let anyone in Nashville know that he wrote songs. "I didn’t want to share that stuff with anybody. I didn’t want to go out and play those personal songs in a bar. I’d go out and sing covers. I played everyone else’s music, but not my own." To pay the bills, he worked assorted jobs, including construction. "Every job I’ve ever had I felt like it was something to do until I could get started doing music full-time. Life’s too short to be doing something you have no passion for fifty years then die." In 2002, he self-released his first album, They Call Me Country.

 

Johnson downplays the importance of commercial success. "I got no time for hits. I write songs. I write music." But hits he’s had, first as a writer of songs recorded by others, including Trace Adkins who took "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk," which Johnson co-wrote, to the top in 2005. In 2007, Johnson won the Song of the Year award from the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association for "Give It Away," a hit for George Strait. With 2008's Grammy nominated "In Color," Johnson had a hit of his own. It, too, earned best song honors from the ACM and CMA. The song was inspired by memories of his grandfather to whom "I always wanted to pay tribute back to thank him for the lessons growing up, all the conversations with him. Nobody ever pays attention to that stuff until they’re gone, I’m afraid." In the song, his grandfather is showing him a photo album filled with memories of life in the Great Depression and WWII:

 

"If it looks like we were scared to death,
like a couple of kids just trying to save each other,
you should have seen it in color."

 

Johnson’s second album, The Dollar, was "refreshingly straight and honest," in the words of Amazon.com, while All Music called it a "debut that can only be described as countrified brilliance." The title song, in which a boy saves his money in a piggy bank in the hope of buying time with his father, reached number 14 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, but his label, BNA, dropped him after a second single failed to chart, and the company was swallowed up in a merger between Sony and BMG.

 

"They were bringing in so many hit artists from Sony that they had to focus energy on," Johnson explained. "They had to shift up their game plan for how they do their business. I think at that particular time it didn’t involve trying to grow new artists."

 

He moved to Mercury where his third album, That Lonesome Song, was released in 2008 and earned a gold record. A bitter chronicle of his divorce, Johnson had raised eyebrows earlier when he thanked his ex-wife while accepting a Song of the Year award for "Give It Away."

 

"I just didn’t see standing on that stage, holding that trophy, accepting an award for a song I wrote about our unfortunate divorce without giving her the credit for the kind of woman she is. She’s a great woman, still one of my best friends."

 

When his fourth album, The Guitar Song, was released in 2010, Rolling Stone hailed Johnson as country music’s "most reliable traditionalist, a Music Row pro who can write a song for every emotional season."

 

A double album, The Guitar Song is "a tale," Johnson says. "The first part of it is a very dark and sordid story. And then everything after that is progressively more positive, reassuring and redemptive." The first disc, dubbed the "Black Album," contains such songs as "Poor Man Blues" and "Can’t Cash My Checks" whose lyrics speak to the current economic malaise ("You can bring me down, but you can’t make me beg"). The second disc, the "White Album," is lighter, and features "Porch Swing Afternoon," another song inspired by personal memories: 

 

"That old dog is laying under grandpa’s chair,
He ain’t looking for nothing to do. . .
I can see grandma now in her old checkered dress,
Beat’n a rug with her broom"

 

Johnson also tips his hat to country music’s past with covers of such classics as Kris Kristofferson’s "For the Good Times" and Mel Tillis’ "Mental Revenge."

 

Releasing a double album, and one with a concept at that ("Each album bleeds into the other without stopping," he says), is an almost nostalgic gesture at a time when such epic works have gone the way of vinyl records. But Johnson is determined to do things his way, and, besides, "It’s my favorite, number-one preference at home, to go put a vinyl record on my great grandmother’s old record player."

 

Johnson can summarize his life in a few words: "Wake up everyday, play some country music, and have another drink." Sometimes, though, the memories that inspired the songs can make them hard to sing. "There are some times when I get choked up. I’ve done some songs where people will sing the lyrics back to me - and when it’s something that means that much to you, that’s a whole other level. One of my favorite sounds is when the audience is louder than the band. I just wanna back up and let them have it. This is your song, go ahead and do it!"

 

It’s a sentiment that Johnson has also expressed in song, on a track from The Guitar Song:

 

"You fell in love or threw it away,
You’re looking for the perfect thing to say.
You’re no good with words, well, that’s okay,
That’s why I write songs.
Might make you laugh or make you cry,
might help you make it through a bad goodbye.
'Cause you’ve been through it all and so have I,
That’s why I write songs."


by Brian W. Fairbanks



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