Album Review – Jamey Johnson’s “The Guitar Song”

This is going to be a long one. So for those short of attention, let me summarize by saying that compared to most of the independent/Outlaw/underground country I am used to listening to and reviewing, this album is somewhere between mediocre and average. But compared to the rest of the material coming from major labels in Nashville, this album is remarkable.

Some of you might wonder with a name like “Saving Country Music,” why more albums and artists like this are not covered here. It’s because my charter is to find the obscure stuff and shine a light on it, not contribute to the large pile of coverage these artist already get from mainstream outlets. But since this is such a hyped album, I’m making an exception.

I first must give Jamey and Mercury Records high praise for the cover and approach of this album. The cover art is nothing special, but the bi-fold CD case is indicative of vinyl packaging, which this album was also released on. Independent country artists have released on vinyl for years, but to see such a vinyl commitment from a mainstream artist is refreshing. Full liner notes with lyrics, writers, and players for each song are appreciated. Releasing a double album at this spot in Johnson’s career was very wise, with the extra intrigue for such a large project allowing for it to cut through the crowd instead of being just the next offering from an artist in the middle tier of mainstream popularity.

I noted while looking through the liner notes that even though Jamey Johnson is sold as a songwriter, only one song on these two LP’s is his alone, with some covers included, and a large list of co-writers that includes Bobby Bare and Bill Anderson.

As for the music itself, there are some great songs here, and overall the album has its moments. Standout tracks for me were “Can’t Cash My Checks,” “California Riots,” and “Macon.” For a Nashville-based album put out in 2010, the songs and arrangements are surprisingly tasteful and true to the roots of country, with heavy pedal-steel from “cowboy” Eddie Long, and even the appearance of upright bass and some B3.

This is not a “concept” album in the traditional sense that there is one theme or story tying all the songs together, though there are small bursts of music and sound between most songs that give it a concept album feel; a more accessible approach to the concept album maybe. The idea is the black album is about darkness–you can guess what the white one is about–but this doesn’t always hold up in the themes of the songs. With the songs lacking a thematic bond to each other, I would not think of this in the same way Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger was a concept, for example.

The problem with this album for me is that many of the songs either lose their magic quickly, or there’s never any magic there to being with. And with so many songs, the standouts and marginal songs get buried. A lot of these songs can be boiled down to one little twist of words or a simple concept, and the soul or musicianship is just not there to carry them further. Songs like “Playing the Part,” “Even The Skies Are Blue,” “By The Seat of Your Pants,” “Front Porch Swing Afternoon,” are like the plots of Kilgore Trout novels. Yes, they’re whitty, but they can be explained in one sentence, and no amount of musical effort can help them stick to your bones. This is a problem with many songs that come out of the Nashville songwriting clan-they focus on mining that one whitty line that can be sold to a producer or executive quickly, instead of one with deep, thematic meaning.

Jamey takes this to the extreme with “Dog in The Yard,” where he draws parallels between how his woman treats him like a canine, drawing out easily-anticipated turns and similarities. “Poor Man Blues” also got my druthers up. Jamey is not poor, and I was not sold on his sincerity. I like songs that give the poor pride instead of envy, and this song also clashes in theme with a pretty good song “Lonely At The Top,” again emphasizing the lack of cohesiveness that may have taken this album to the next level. “Heartache” is another “pretty good” song, but if you listen to this album cover to cover, as the artist intended with the way the music and the vignettes in between are set up, I’m afraid you attention would be lost before you get to track 10.

Though I like the message of “That’s Why I Write Songs,” it comes across as hokey, like some other of these songs do. “Baby Don’t Cry” is almost unforgivably hokey. It also illustrates an underlying problem with Jamey, that he is a pure songwriter first, and a performer second. The songwriting part is great, but I’m worried he doesn’t have the natural performing talent that could take him to the next level. I’m not saying he is a bad performer, but his gift is songwriting. His endearing “aw-shucks” attitude is not always going to come through on recorded tracks. I’ve heard many comparisons to Jamey and Waylon. Waylon was a performer first, and a songwriter second. This gave Waylon the ability to command a song, on stage or record, and make you believe a song, even if the concept was thin. You don’t think of Jamey first as a singer either–he’s no Dale Watson or Waylon–though I will say he has his moments on this album where his vocal performance does stand out.

Where this album finally drew me in was the last few songs, which accomplished a pretty good ramping up of mood to the finale of “My Way To You,” which might be the best song on the album, and I fear destined to be overlooked.

I like this album, but there is nothing new here. Despite all the five star reviews I have seen for this, it breaks no new ground. With Willie Nelson’s concept albums, or Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes, Hank III’s Straight to Hell, or even an album like Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball, there was something new, a fresh approach that had never been tried before. A grand vision. As good as this album is, it is not as epic as some would sell.

Honestly, listening to this, it makes me sad to think of the people who live in a musical world where this is the most exciting thing in years. There is so much more out there. It sounds to me like living in a two-dimensional world. On the flip side, there’s some good songs on here, and I feel similar for people who cannot swallow their prejudice and appreciate the quality songs this album offers.

For me, Jamey is like the political candidate that you didn’t vote for in the primary election, but you back 100% in the general election because he represents your party. I do not think Jamey Johnson is like the rest of mainstream country artists. I do think he’s true to the roots and traditions. I would LOVE to unite underground/independent country behind this man in a unified effort to kick pop country out of Nashville. But I can’t, at least not because of this album. Still, Jamey is on our side, and in my opinion, deserves tremendous respect for doing it his own way, in a town known for not allowing this.

Preview and/or purchase The Guitar Song.