September 10, 2010

A New Country Masterpiece (BARRY MAZOR, 9/09/10, WSJ)

This is supposed to be, recording-industry watchers regularly remind us, the post-album era, the day of the easily downloadable, easily digestible, easily disposable single. And that sort of commodity is, in fact, just what we can expect from country music, as from all the other sorts of pop, most of the time. But those who've had the opportunity to spend time with "The Guitar Song"—a new two-CD album from the rising, much-lauded songwriter, singer and bandleader Jamey Johnson, set for release on Tuesday on Mercury Records—have encountered something else again.

Jamey Johnson's 'The Guitar Song' is as ambitious and well executed as anything country music has seen in decades.

It's a stunning, varied and far-reaching set of 25 hardcore country songs, sonically and thematically integrated into a musical journey designed to be experienced, optimally, in sequence, from the first, generally darker "Black" disc on through the more upbeat sounds of hard-won redemption in the second "White" disc. It's a country album, and one as ambitious in its intentions and successful in its execution as country music has seen in decades, able to hold its own with albums conceived as such by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. [...]

At 35, Mr. Johnson is a leathery but supple, knowing vocalist who first found success in Nashville as a demo singer, and he integrates into this set fresh takes on such country classics of the late 1960s to '80s as Mel Tillis's "Mental Revenge," Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times," Vern Gosdin's hit "Set 'Em Up Joe" and Keith Whitley's obscure but hilarious poor man's protest "Lonely at the Top." New Johnson songs—marked by his astounding capacity, working with varied co-writers, for marrying very specific, utterly fresh down-home imagery with sounds that match the emotions those specifics portray ("Even the Skies Are Blue," "That's Why I Write Songs," "Thankful for the Rain")—seem destined to join the ranks of classics themselves. The connection between these new, very 21st-century songs and those products of an earlier country era is not found in throwback, "retro" sounds, but in a return to a certain sensibility and respect for what a country song might do, as Mr. Johnson acknowledges.

"The traditional country music—or as it's commonly called in my house, 'music'—that's where you learned things," he said. "In the little town I grew up in, that music came in, and it fed the soul and challenged the spirit. It got you thinking about everything, every aspect of life, as songs should—not just the funny times, not just the good ones, but the serious ones, too. There was a language that country-music writers, singers and listeners in general understood. That language is not being passed down these days; not a lot of people can really speak it. But you can still learn it if you try, and that's the fine art of country music."

Jamey Johnson: Country's 'Lonesome' Songs (World Cafe, May 13, 2009)
Following a run of hardships, Johnson went into a period of isolation, supporting himself by penning hits for Trace Adkins and George Strait — including 2006's Country Music Award-winning "Give It Away." It took a full year, but Johnson emerged from his slump rejuvenated, with a new collection of songs in tow. In this session, Johnson talks about his country hero, Hank Williams Sr., and explains how his own recent divorce influenced his album That Lonesome Song.

Jamey Johnson at Amazon

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 10, 2010 6:26 AM
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