As an examination of how problems of class and money can cause a country singer to question his values, Jamey Johnson’s debut album, The Dollar (BNA), operates in the music’s best tradition. Although it’s not as fully realized as it could have been, the recordis more substantial and subtle than it first appears, with a teasing ambiguity hidden beneath producer Buddy Cannon’s elegant post-Southern-rock settings.
Johnson, who grew up near Montgomery, Ala., has lived in Nashville for six years. Like many an aspiring country performer, he’s worked as a demo singer, and he’s been successful as a songwriter, co-writing Trace Adkin’s hit single “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” as well as most of the songs on The Dollar. And he possesses a superb baritone voice whose cut and lift owes an obvious debt to singers like George Jones and Randy Travis—like his models, Johnson has the ability to sound forthright while contriving to sing out of the side of his mouth.
In other words, Johnson works both tense and relaxed, as befits a performer who can conceive a song like “Flying Silver Eagle.” This tale of a man who loses his wife to a “banker man” comes couched in impeccable Possum-like phrasing. He melts down his wedding ring so he can “wear it on a chain,” and sings, “I’d rather have this silver eagle / Than all that rich man’s gold / It’s my one reminder / Of a woman turning cold.” It’s a masterful song with a classic country twist: the singer meets a “homeless man on Broadway” who turns out to be the banker—his gold-digging wife has cleaned him out. “You might could use this silver eagle,” Johnson sings, “It used to be a ring.”
“Redneck Side of Me” employs a great slide guitar riff and a female gospel singer wailing in the background, and is perhaps the most interesting and problematic song on the record. “I never cut tobacco in the hills of Tennessee,” Johnson sings, and goes on to list all the Southern-identified things he’s never done. Yet he’s authentic; give him a “Gibson Les Paul guitar” and he becomes a redneck. But don’t guitars cost money, and doesn’t this song suggest that one can purchase reality, that a country singer who adopts a persona is working just as hard as a Hispanic laborer cutting tobacco in Robertson County?
The Dollar is not an unadventurous record. Its take on post-Outlaw country music is pleasingly idiomatic, and there is a kind of class analysis here, albeit disguised as a celebration of individuality. The delightful duet Johnson sings with George Jones, “Keepin’ Up With the Jonesin’,” is engaging and not without its insights into human nature. (It also contains the record’s best melody, not to mention the inevitable joke about the cooler on Jones’ lawn tractor.) But it seems reasonable to expect more depth along with the jokes, especially from a performer who so obviously has the potential to get at some of the home truths that popular music often ignores.