Glower power: Down-and-dirty country roots help Jamey Johnson's career bloom
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
NEW YORK -- One of the greatest country singers of our time lives beneath a mountain of hair and bramble of beard worthy of the Old Testament or the 1970s -- the whiskey-soaked glory days of Waylon and Willie, Cash and Hag.
And while he's been championed as an outlaw in the grand tradition of those hard-living Nashville nonconformists, Jamey Johnson would like to take a moment to spit on his reputation: "There ain't anything more outlaw about us than being double-parked out here in New York City."
Laugh. It's a joke. He's only terrifying most of the time.
Holed up in the darkness of his tour bus on a sunny Thursday afternoon, Johnson puffs weed from a black ceramic pipe, grins at his own jokes and scolds his pit-bull-mutt Hank for licking himself. But even when a smile manages to form beneath that tangled beard, his brow stays furrowed, like a tectonic plate capable of unleashing chaos were it to budge a millimeter. When Johnson performs on "Late Show With David Letterman" a few hours later, his scowl remains fixed, glowering into 3 million living rooms across the country.
The 35-year-old Alabama native has come to Manhattan to push his new double album, "The Guitar Song," an ambitious 25-song sequel to his last album, "That Lonesome Song." That 2008 opus, littered with ruminations on drug addiction, depression, divorce and other American nightmares, stands as the most profound country album of the past decade. And its unexpected success presented Johnson not only as a grizzled anomaly on country's spray-tanned airwaves, but as one of the genre's strongest new songwriters.
But he wasn't new. For years, Johnson had been co-writing hits for the likes of George Strait (2006's plaintive "Give It Away") and Trace Adkins (2005's quirky "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk"). With his Grammy-nominated 2008 single "In Color," Johnson finally scored a hit of his own.
He didn't care.
"A hit is what they call it after the success," he says. "I can't be focused on whatever the [expletive] a hit is. [Expletive] hits. I got no time for hits. I write songs. I write music. And I put music on my albums and I deliver that to people. And I go out there every night to play my music to people who come to see our shows. And if they enjoy it, we got a good deal worked out."
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Outside the bus on Letterman's West 53rd Street sidewalk, Johnson's band mates are chain-smoking the butterflies away. They describe their leader with a terse enthusiasm: Generous. Temperamental. Loyal. Guarded. And in many ways, empowering.
"We don't have the handcuffs that everybody else has in Nashville," says guitarist Jason "Rowdy" Cope. "Every other country band you ever see, you're looking at a band full of robots. They take young, good-looking haircuts out on the road."
When longtime guitarist Wayd Battle first met Johnson at an open-mike/pumpkin-carving contest in 2003, he recognized the singer's integrity immediately. "I never call Jamey Johnson an act," Battle says. "Because he ain't acting like anything."