Country music traditionalist Jamey Johnson has become known over the last few years more and more for filling the majority of his concerts with classic country songs written by others, along with pulling from his catalog of originals. For some this approach to his concerts feels strange since Jamey Johnson got his start in country music specifically as an original songwriter, including winning two CMA Song of the Year trophies for his contributions in the late aughts, and releasing three critically-acclaimed original records, including a double record during the era.
Jamey Johnson has given numerous reasons for not releasing any new original music for going on 11 years now, including a dispute with his publisher, a potential concussion and brain injury, and recently saying he just doesn’t see the point if the songs he has just aren’t up to snuff. Jamey Johnson has continued to co-write occasionally, and has song credits on recent albums by George Strait, The Steel Woods, and others, and has appeared on new recordings as well like Blackberry Smoke’s recent song “Lonesome for a Livin’.”
But some fans have frankly become a little frustrated that Jamey Johnson seems to be perfectly fine singing old classic country songs in concert as opposed to releasing and performing new, original material.
Well, recently the Country Music Hall of Fame released a video of Jamey Johnson as part of the current Outlaws & Armadillos exhibit where Jamey Johnson explains his philosophy behind this approach to performing music live. And not only does he make a very compelling case for playing so many classic country songs, he gives some very specific insight on why he does it, and how he views himself in the country music continuum.
“Townes Van Zandt’s not around anymore to sing his songs, so somebody’s got to sing them,” Jamey Johnson starts off. “Vern Gosdin, he’s not here today. Neither is Merle Haggard, and neither is George Jones. And without people like me out there covering those songs, they just stop. If nobody was singing Johnny Cash, there’s a whole generation that would grow up without Johnny Cash. And if you ask me, that’s not going to be a good world. That’s why it’s important the young artists today, they learn those songs. It’s important that they pass them along, that you pay respect, but that you also pass along the ministry of those important singers. They had a lot to say that matters. It’s not all love songs and beer songs and party songs. It’s also life songs.”
Jamey Johnson goes on to talk about how sometimes when people are younger, the lyrics of classic country songs don’t resonate in them like when they get older, and puts the younger Jamey Johnson in that group. “Those lyrics hold more truth, and more wisdom, and more meaning than you can possibly realize at your age,” he says about younger listeners.
Speaking in generalities, Johnson probably is right. But it should also be pointed out that among the ranks for classic country fans, you will always find a surprising amount of younger folks who do identify with the lyrics and the wisdom of older country songs, while finding the country music of today’s generation (at least in the mainstream) to be the stuff they don’t understand, and foreign-feeling to them.
Jamey Johnson then goes on to say,
“I have a lot of interest in passing along those legacies—Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter. I just view myself as a torch that’s passing down from one generation to the next. And if I can be used in that way, maybe that’s a good purpose. There’s gonna be some youngins grow up never having listened to it live, and never having met any of those people, I may be the only one they ever meet that could tell them about it. So that’s how I see my role in all this.”
Some Jamey Johnson fans will continue to hope and wish that eventually he does record and release some more new, original songs. But when presented like that, it not only makes sense why Jamey Johnson has decided to become like a living jukebox of classic country songs, it also makes it hard to criticize. Being a conduit between generations is where Jamey Johnson has found meaning and purpose as a live country music performer.
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Here, @jamey_johnson offers perspective on why it’s important to carry forward the music and traditions of Outlaw country’s creative beacons — including @OfficialWaylon, @WillieNelson, and @Jessi_Colter.— Country Music HOF (@countrymusichof) August 2, 2021
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