Of all the duet partners Alison Krauss has had — including the frontman of one of the world's most primal rock 'n' roll bands — Jamey Johnson can claim the greatest disparity between untamed looks and tender performance. For a guy who's let his bikerish, billy-goat beard grow wild for several years and has no trouble mustering a steely stare to ratchet up the intimidation factor, Johnson sure does a fine job of matching Krauss' supple pleading on the waltzing ballad "Make the World Go Away."
If Johnson has a modus operandi, it's this, in a nutshell: He does the opposite of what's expected. And his new album, whose tone is set by that initial intimate musical moment with Krauss, is no exception. It's called Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran.
Recall, for the sake of perspective, that Johnson got his foot in the door with jokey redneck posturing, co-writing the Trace Adkins hits "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" and "Ladies Love Country Boys." The songwriter's 2006 major label debut The Dollar split the difference between that silliness and solid honky-tonk sensibilities, but it wasn't particularly memorable. After that, another Johnson co-write, George Strait's "Give It Away," showed great promise and won CMA and ACM awards.
But That Lonesome Sound still seemed to come out of nowhere.
After being dropped by his label, Johnson recorded his Waylon-conjuring, outsider song cycle of self-destruction, divorce and barefaced desperation independently, only to see it picked up by Mercury and praised profusely by critics who seldom give contemporary country the time of day — particularly if it contains even so much as a whiff of sentimentality. Then, despite a widespread shift in emphasis toward single-track iTunes fodder, he followed that up with a substantial double album.
Johnson has been heralded over and over again as a latter-day outlaw, the savior of dark country songwriting and rough-edged album making. And he chose this moment to deliver a duet-heavy set composed entirely of covers — covers of songs by Hank Cochran, a full-blown legend to students of classic country. Not only that, Johnson and producer Buddy Cannon gave most of the songs an elegant Nashville Sound treatment — a crystalline guitar figure here, twinkling, slip note-style piano there and understated contributions from the rhythm section throughout.
If it wasn't abundantly clear before, it ought to be now that he's made an album without the ingredients that originally won him acclaim: Johnson, the intelligent contrarian, is the one calling the shots. And it's usually worked out pretty well for him on both the critical and commercial fronts. Whether he means to or not, it's a big deal that he changes the topic to serious, rogue country artistry every couple of years in a genre currently recognized for its arena-scale audiences and production rather than the transgressiveness of its voices.
Few tracks on Living for a Song jibe with the inveterately undomesticated masculinity that made such an impression on That Lonesome Song — only the tell-off "I Don't Do Windows," the freedom-flaunting "The Eagle" and the spousal sparring match "This Ain't My First Rodeo." Otherwise, the songs Johnson selected from Cochran's catalog cast him in roles closer to the ones that country's smooth-cheeked, comfortably insider male balladeers play all the time: the taken-for-granted lover; the left-behind and helplessly heartbroken husband; the guy who can't shake her memory and just wants to hold her once more.
With a little help from Merle Haggard, Johnson even dares take on "I Fall to Pieces" — Patsy Cline's iconic ballad about the heart's most fragile state — and trace the bruised emotional contour of the lyrics with a surprisingly sensitive touch. Turns out he has a gift for interpreting sentimental material, which only makes him that much more complex and complete a performer.
Johnson certainly wouldn't explain his latest album this way, but a sociologist might say he's putting his accumulated cultural capital to use endorsing his late friend's body of songs, lest they be underappreciated or forgotten. (There's little danger of that happening among those who revere the country songwriting tradition, but they're likely dwarfed by the number of contemporary country radio's casual listeners.) The fact that a lot of those songs come from the countrypolitan era, and that Johnson has been most closely associated with the outlaw movement that supposedly corrected countrypolitan's pop crossover tendencies, shows that his engagement with country music history is anything but superficial. It's only gotten deeper since he positioned himself "Between Jennings and Jones."
You've got to believe that Johnson is very conscious of whom he associates himself with — that goes for the Willie Nelson-to-Elvis Costello-to-Lee Ann Womack span of the Cochran-admiring guests here — even as he insists on the casual, uncalculated origins of his albums. (According to the bio, this one grew out of folks getting together to sing Cochran's songs after his passing, while the Lonesome sessions, as Johnson told it in 2008, started out with a whiskey-lubricated, football-tossing hang.)
Though it's not often acknowledged, the shaping of self-presentation, career narrative and the context in which music will be heard is part of artistry. Really, Johnson's talents in that arena are no less impressive than what he does as a singer and songwriter. He's a master on all fronts.
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