Jamey Johnson: “The Guitar Song”

By double-album standards, The Guitar Song is decidedly non-conventional– and not just in the obvious ways. To be sure, the mere fact that this album exists– in 2010– turns standard practice in its head; when, after all, was the last time a major-label country music artist, existing comfortably within the mainstream, released such a sweeping work? It’s largely unprecedented in the modern day; aside from Vince Gill’s four-disc, completely in-a-league-of-its-own These Days, Johnson’s album stands as the champ, at least in terms of sheer ambition.

But even beyond the stick-in-the-eye this gives to the Nashville music machine, The Guitar Song is a damned ornery thing, a very bold and full statement that is sometimes difficult, always done on its own terms, and never really feels like a “double album” in the familiar sense. By that I mean that there has, in the annuls of rock and roll, been more to the double album than sheer length, with the bulk of the good and famous ones reveling not just in a sense of sprawl but also of liberation: Surely The White Album is noteworthy first and foremost for the dizzying creativity it displays, for its fractured and kaleidoscopic view of pop music where rules no longer apply– not simply for being the Beatles album with the longest running time. Sign ‘O the Times, meanwhile, is perhaps the great Prince album not because Prince sustains the same trick for a two-disc runtime, but because Prince’s bag of tricks is seemingly bottomless.

The Guitar Song is not a double album that revels in its wide-open boundaries or its sense of abandon. It’s not an album celebrating breadth, but depth: Johnson digs his heels in and goes about the noble and sometimes thankless work of craftman-like songwriting, burrowing deep into a very classicist and traditional vein of country music and carving out his own imprint there.

This is the hard stuff, plain and simple– country music with no frills and nothing fancy, squarely in the outlaw camp. The first two singles are actually among the biggest curveballs on the set– “Macon” is southern rock with gospel flourishes, and “Playing the Part” is a sort of neo-outlaw anthem with some small touches of modernity. There are strands of both of those things here, but for the most part the songs here go into a quieter, simpler direction– traditional outlaw country built on Waylon and Willie, with enough wrinkles to keep things interesting but no real stylistic excursions.

The luxuries here are ones of craft, then, not of style– meaning that there’s nothing at all flashy about this music, but that it’s very meat-and-potatoes, Johnson choosing not to change the winning formula of That Lonesome Song so much as cultivate it further, expanding it subtly but not really changing its essence. And so the set’s double-disc sprawl comes not from variety but from a sense of unhurried, unfussy work being done– of Johnson expanding his abilities not just as a songwriter but an interpretive singer with wonderful covers of Tillis and Cochran and Kristofferson; with many songs drifting well past the six- and seven-minute marks, sometimes with easy-going backporch strumming and sometimes with full-band jams; with Johnson putting his wonderful whiskey-soaked baritone to use in some spoken-word recitations, in true Porter Wagoner style– one of many tips o’ the cowboy hat to Johnson’s deep-seated country conservatism.

Indeed, that conservative streak may well be the album’s defining characteristic, and it extends not just to the music but to the songs themselves, which Johnson cuts very close to the traditional country bone. The record is a song cycle divided not-so-neatly into two parts– a “dark” album chronicling a descent into brokenness and sorrow, then a “light” one that deals more explicitly with redemption– but the album is as much a commentary on country songwriting as it is a philosophical exercise, with the songs dealing directly and earnestly with familiar country themes (there’s plenty of drinkin’ and cheatin’ and heartache on the first disc; on the second, love, God, and the South) and sometimes going meta, the title track being a country-fitted overview of life’s journey as seen through the eyes of pawn-shop guitars, and “That’s Why I Write Songs” serving as a sort of mission statement, an explanation, a defense, and a quasi-commentary track all at once.

Johnson’s devotion to craft– and the sheer length of this project– afford him the chance to actually dig deep into these themes, expanding on them patiently and profoundly over the record’s duration, which means that both discs take a little time to get going but become increasingly rewarding as they progress, and as the listener revisits them; by the time the first record hits an outstanding back-stretch that includes a staggeringly lonely and cold reflection on self-destruction (“That’s How I Don’t Love You Anymore”), a hilarious and grimly precise broken love song sung from the perspective of “Heartache,” a ruthless cover of Mel Tillis’ “Mental Revenge” that fits perfectly within this album’s framework, and a devastating, Haggard-styled closing lament called “Even the Skies are Blue,” it is indeed tempting to say that Johnson is doing his finest work yet.

I’m less enamored of the more philosophical numbers, and of the second disc in particular, precisely because Johnson’s hard-country conservatism begins to outweigh the real-world grit and gravity he brings to his weepies and laments. “California Riots” hates on the West Coast in a rather reactionary way, and represents a streak of back-to-the-South pride anthems that sound a little stodgy. “By the Seat of Your Pants” is the kind of genial little country number that Brad Paisley might write, life lessons wrapped up in down-home, cornball humor; stretched out past six minutes, it’s nauseating. “I Remember You” is the album’s token “spiritual,” a tired religious meditation that sounds like the twinkling background music at a Southern Baptist altar call; why couldn’t Johnson have instead stretched out further in the gospel-fueled direction hinted at by “Macon?”

I suspect, though, that for many country fans these songs will work better than they do for me, and in a way it’s hard to find too much fault with them: They are further expressions of the deep country roots that this album stretches into the soil, and if some material works better than others all of it feels like it’s anchored in tradition, in conviction, and in a sort of earned authenticity that gives The Guitar Song real grit. I couldn’t comment on the extent to which this material is autobiographical, but it is, at least, less explicitly so than the stuff on That Lonesome Song, which is perfectly fine: Johnson doesn’t suffer from a lack of country-music cred, and everything he does feels lived-in and sincere. That’s what makes The Guitar Song a distinct and rather marvelous thing: It isn’t only impressive in its reach but in its execution, in its focus and in its depth, making it a country music opus that challenges here and there but rewards in spades.

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