Friday, December 17, 2010

Album Review: Jamey Johnson - The Guitar Song

Country music hasn't had a lot to be thankful for in the past decade or so. The once great American genre has been transformed into bland pop and faux populism, marketed toward middle-aged housewives and the mythical Joe Sixpack. The true country legends are still spoken of in hushed tones, but they've been shoved aside, and most of the music you'll hear today on country radio sounds not even  remotely like the country music of the past. 

So the story goes. But at least one man is fighting back against the decline of country music - Jamey Johnson. He's an unlikely hero, especially since his first claim to fame was writing Trace Adkins' insufferable 2005 song "Honky-Tonk Badonkadonk." But it turns out that Johnson has a lot more in him than ear-splitting novelty songs - his latest album, The Guitar Song, is some of the best country music that I've heard in a long time, and gives me hope that the genre isn't dead. 

The Guitar Song is Johnson's fourth album, and certainly his most ambitious. At Folsom Prison aside, country music is not necessarily a genre known for full-length albums, but Johnson has gone full-speed ahead and given us two discs and over one hundred minutes worth of music, based around the loose concept of a "Black Album" filled with heartache and regret, and a more upbeat, cheerful "White Album" to conclude the work. It's a lot to swallow, but The Guitar Song is so much fun that it's easy to forgive Johnson's hubris. Sure, twenty-five songs is a lot, but each and every one of these songs is stronger than anything else you'll hear on country radio this year. 

It also plays tribute to the traditions of the past. Johnson namedrops Hanks Williams, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, among others, and while critics have rushed to find past country stars with which to compare Johnson, The Guitar Song instead reveals him as an amalgamation of many different country legends. He has an outlaw streak to rival Waylon Jennings, a roughness like Merle Haggard's, enough sadness to merit comparisons to Hank Williams. He even treads on Willie Nelson territory with "Can't Cash My Checks," a song about a farmer who starts growing marijuana to make ends meet. 

Keeping with this tradition, Johnson weaves melancholy and wry self-deprecation together with a healthy dose of wordplay and humor. He runs the gamut of old country tropes, from crooning about his wife leaving him, to singing about being drunk, to reflecting on his nostalgic childhood in Alabama. The first disc, "The Black Album," might be the better half, with Johnson reflecting on his recent fame through humorous songs like "Lonely at the Top" ("It may be lonely at the top / But it's a bitch at the bottom," Johnson sings), and the curiously affective "Playing the Part," where he laments the enticing shallowness of the California record industry. 

Johnson has a great voice, and the lengthy album really shows off his talent. But what's equally great about The Guitar Song is that Johnson is performing with an actual band. "Heartache" and "Can't Cash My Checks" are two songs come with great instrumental jams as codas. Most modern country stars are basically pop acts singing over corny fiddles, so it's nice to see a country music outfit where the singer and his band manage to compliment each other, feeding off one another to give the songs that extra punch. 

Despite being NPR approved, Johnson is hardly hipster-oriented country. A few times, he comes perilously close to succumbing to the culture-war rhetoric that has infested a lot of other modern country music, but songs like "California Riots" and "Playing the Part," both of which involve Johnson desiring to move back from California to his home in Alabama, are more about Johnson's love of the rural South than any desire to pick on those hoity-toity urban types. Unlike a lot of other songs about the same subject matter, which always patronizing and shamelessly pandering to my ears, Johnson manages to write songs that seem honest and sincere. 

There's only a few real clunkers on this large dose of music - "By the Seat of Your Pants," a hokey song where Johnson recalls his father's tough love, and the titular track that, from the point of view of an old guitar in a pawn shop, strays too close to kitsch. But 23 good songs out of 25 is nothing to be ashamed of. And the high points - the optimistic I'm-Coming-Home-Baby anthem "Macon," and the sinister "Heartache" are but two of many - are some of the best country that I've heard in a long time. 

Can Johnson single-handed save country music from itself? The Guitar Song debuted at number one on the Billboard country music charts, which shows that this sort of music still has widespread appeal. And Johnson's songwriting is certainly strong enough - he can pull off the uptempo outlaw tunes just as well as the slow, heartfelt ballads. But regardless if whether or not The Guitar will permanently change the direction of the genre, I'm glad, at least, that Johnson has breathed some new life into it.