September 26, 2010

DISTILLERY:

Back in Black: A Country Outsider (JON CARAMANICA, 9/26/10, NY Times)

Long before Mr. Johnson was an outlaw of any sort, or even a sometimes surly resident of the country-music charts, he was a careful student of country songwriting. He learned guitar at his father’s knee as a child growing up poor in Alabama. He earned a music scholarship to Jacksonville State University — “I whizzed through music theory,” he said — but left school after finding it too restrictive.

After moving to Nashville in 2000, he owned a construction company while singing demos for local songwriters. When his own career wasn’t taking off, he made a name for himself as a songwriter and had a hand in Trace Adkins’s hit tribute to the female anatomy, “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.” He also won song of the year awards from the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music for “Give It Away,” a wry breakup song that was a No. 1 Billboard country hit for George Strait. Mr. Johnson may be dark, but he’s funny.

His first major-label album, “The Dollar” (BNA), from 2006, was a mildly tougher variation on Nashville norms; the title track was his first and only hit before he was dropped. In the downtime that followed, he made brief, cryptic appearances on “Nashville,” an ill-fated 2007 Fox reality show about country music. Asked about it in an interview last year, he was succinct: “Never ask me about that show again.” It was the inspiration for “Playing the Part” on the new album, in which Mr. Johnson skewers himself for his skewed ambition: “It’s so complicated, I really hate it/Why’d I ever wanna go so far/Taking depression pills in the Hollywood Hills.”

In recent years, the idea of outlaw country has become a stand-in for a ragged, pugnacious sound that flies in the face of mainstream Nashville’s polish. But while Mr. Johnson is a clear student of the outlaw movement of the 1960s and ’70s, he’s not interested in replicating it.

“That Lonesome Song” was a deeply distilled take on outlaw country, stripping bare its hyperactivity and posturing, leaving only bubbling resentment behind that played well with Mr. Johnson’s stoicism. But Mr. Johnson is also a naturally smooth singer — there’s barely a rasp to be heard in his voice, which sounds stern but is deceptively supple — and for all its melancholy, “The Guitar Song” is a mellow album. It doesn’t repudiate its predecessor so much as cast it in a different light.

He took a catholic approach to assembling it, mixing his own material with covers of tunes by Mel Tillis and Vern Gosdin among others, blurring and rewriting the tradition he’s meant to be upholding. Mr. Johnson has earned the right to his idiosyncrasies, even if they’re not musical. “I’m nobody’s slave,” he said indignantly. “I’m nobody’s property at all, of any kind.” But like many rebels, he’s not a loose cannon; he’s just adhering to a different set of values than the ones expected of him. His cover of Mr. Gosdin’s “Set ’Em Up Joe,” recorded the morning after Mr. Gosdin died last year, is lighthearted and faithful, and his take on Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” is downright tender. (His toughest number, the savage “Mental Revenge,” is a Tillis cover.)

Much of the album is given over to gentle, elegantly written heartbreak numbers like “That’s How I Don’t Love You” and “Thankful for the Rain” (“I guess I should be thankful for/All the nights of straight downpours/And soaking up every drop I get.”). “Even the Skies Are Blue,” one of the finest moments, is a beautiful, plangent piece of modern country-soul:

These are hard days

Heavy old heart days

Dead string guitar days

The Devil is picking his tune

That Mr. Johnson would like to be left alone to tend to his craft is most clear on “That’s Why I Write Songs,” recorded after hours at the Ryman Auditorium, the onetime home of the Grand Ole Opry and one of Nashville’s most hallowed spaces. As he alternates between plainspoken talk and soft crooning — “I remember how it blew my mind/When I played a song and watched a grown man cry” — the space in the room is palpable, as if you’re listening to him from high up in an empty mezzanine. He sounds alone, and happy about it.

Needless to say, an artist so invested in mood is bound to have an agonized relationship with country radio, generally the primary engine of industry success. On this subject, too, Mr. Johnson is firm: “There’s no answer I want to give on that.”

But when left to his own devices, he can be expansive, speaking at length about producing a coming album for the Blind Boys of Alabama. A week of recording sessions in Nashville included appearances by George Jones, Hank Williams Jr., Vince Gill, Bobby Bare, the Oak Ridge Boys and more. Mr. Johnson also flew in his father, who sang on one song. “There wasn’t one person who didn’t bawl like a baby or bust their heart open at least once,” he said. Mr. Johnson spent a handful of days in New York this month, feeling the tug of obligation. He played at Joe’s Pub as part of the Country Music Association’s Songwriters Series, where he briefly nodded off onstage.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 26, 2010 7:56 AM
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