Jamey Johnson is a man of firm opinions, whether he’s talking about the songs he writes and records or the career path he’s set for himself. His first single, “The Dollar,” from his debut album of the same title, has inched its way to No. 16 on the Billboard chart.
“The Dollar” is a real heartbreaker. It’s about a father who’s too busy working for “the dollar” and his little boy who scrounges up a handful of coins in the hope of buying some of his dad’s time. Johnson’s follow-up single will be “Rebelicious,” a bit of lecherous heavy breathing that may remind some fans of another of Johnson compositions, “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” which is, of course, Trace Adkins’ current hit.
“You’re going to hear a pretty wide range on every one of my albums,” Johnson promises. Besides “The Dollar” and “Rebelicious,” he wrote or co-wrote seven of the 11 songs on the album — and they do cover all shades of the emotional spectrum.
Johnson was born and grew up near Montgomery, Ala. Naturally enough, the group named for that state was an early and strong musical influence. The first concert he ever attended, he says, was one of Alabama’s famed June Jams in the early 1990s when he was still in high school.
“It just kind of took my breath away,” he recalls. “Mom and Dad didn’t let me go to many concerts when I was a kid — any really. … I got to see Alan Jackson play that night and some other guys. It was a remarkable experience for me — wanting to play and sing and seeing these guys up there doing that stuff for a living and turning on the crowd the way they did.”
A lifelong fan of Alabama, Johnson remembers his dad trying to teach him how to strum a guitar and his Uncle Bobby showing him how to play the lead to “My Home’s in Alabama.” Fortunately, the starry-eyed youngster had a real talent for music — as well as for learning music theory.
“It was self-imposed training,” he says. “I just had a passion for it. I wanted to do it. I never could get enough. So I would ask my band director different questions about this and that. … I arranged a piece for my wind ensemble when I was in the eighth grade . . . for my junior high school band. It was ‘How Great Thou Art.’ We played it at a spring concert.”
After high school, Johnson enrolled at Jacksonville State University (Alabama’s Randy Owen’s alma mater, he points out), planning to major in music education.
“One thing I learned while I was there was that I didn’t want to teach [music],” he says. Although he was on scholarship and making “straight A’s,” he confesses he didn’t like being made to do what his scholarship required, a regimen that included playing in the school’s marching and concert bands. “I just figured I’d rather drink beer and chase women for a living and somehow tie that to music,” he reflects.
Johnson quit college after two years and joined the Marine Corps Reserves for an eight-year term. He also kept playing in local country bands around Montgomery. He had started doing this before he was legally old enough to be in bars.
“One of the first gigs I played, I opened up for David Allan Coe in one of the bars down there,” he recalls. “I didn’t play the whole song, but just to kind of tease the crowd along, I said, ‘You all know who’s coming out here next?’ And they roared a little bit, and [my] band played the intro to ‘The Ride’ [Coe's 1983 hit]. That was it. … We got off the stage [Here Johnson begins chuckling at the memory], and [Coe] lit into me. He told me “Don’t you ever play my f**kin’ songs.’
“It wasn’t until a week or two later, we opened up for him again somewhere else — a picnic or something like that. We got done playing, and I got off stage and went back to put my guitar away. And there he was again. He said, ‘Boy, you’re about as country as f**kin’ in tall grass.’ I didn’t even know whether that was good or bad. I just said, ‘OK’ and went on about my business.”
Like so many aspiring singers before him, Johnson spent some late nights singing at Hank Williams’ grave.
“It seems to be the thing everybody wants to do when they come to Montgomery,” he muses. “The best time to do it is after you get done with a show. Go out there and pay your dues, and then go up there and pay your respects.”
Johnson moved to Nashville on Jan. 1, 2000, and began working for a sign company. “I didn’t even tell anybody I did anything in music for probably the first 10 months I was in town,” he says. “I thought if my boss found out that I came to town for music, he’d fire me.” But eventually, Johnson began to venture out to the honky-tonks on Nashville’s Lower Broadway, places like Tootsie’s and Legends Corner.
“I ran across this guy who used to play fiddle for Tanya Tucker and some other different artists,” Johnson continues. “His name was Greg Perkins. I got up and sang, and Greg liked the way I sang, and he hired me to come in and sing some demos for him. … So I went in and sang on a duet. It was with Gretchen Wilson. I sang my part and got out of the way, and she came in and sang hers. I think at the time she was seven or eight months pregnant.”
Before long, Johnson was making a living via demos. “It’s just like opening up business,” he explains. “You do have to do a couple of them for free — just to show somebody you know what you’re doing. For me, it was [through] all my friends that were songwriters. They started hiring me to sing their songs, and their publishers liked what I did and would hire me to sing songs for some of their other songwriters. Over the course of two or three years, it just kind of spread.”
Among the songs Johnson demoed that became hits for other artists were “Songs About Me” (Trace Adkins) and “That’s How They Do It in Dixie” (Hank Williams Jr.) He also sang the work tape — the rough recording that precedes the more polished demo — for “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.” Adkins heard it and snapped up the song before it ever reached the demo stage.
Writing “Badonkadonk” was fun, Johnson says. “Me and my buddies, Randy Houser and Dallas Davidson, were drinking over at the Wildhorse Saloon one night. We were watching this girl dance on the dance floor. She was kind of a healthy girl — looked like somebody had shoved a refrigerator in her pants. We were drinking, but she was drunk. She was done. She was bouncing into people and running folks over and causing a ruckus.
“We thought it was funny, but Randy looked out there and saw that butt of hers and said, ‘badonkadonk.’ Right after that, he said ‘honky tonk badonkadonk.’ Me and Dallas were just so proud to have another word that rhymed with ‘honky tonk’ we didn’t know what to do. We wrote that song in about an hour and spent 30 minutes of that laughing.”
It was through another chance acquaintance — one made at a songwriters showcase — that led Johnson to his producer, Buddy Cannon, who’s best known for his work with Kenny Chesney. That acquaintance was the late Randy Hardison. He told Johnson that he and Cannon were looking for a new artist to produce and set up the first meeting. “The next thing I know,” says Johnson, “I get a phone call saying Randy’s in the hospital, that somebody’s hit him in the head.”
Hardison died from his wounds. A song Hardison wrote with Cannon, “It Was Me,” is on Johnson’s album. Johnson and Cannon have also written, but not yet recorded, a tribute to Hardison called “We’re Almost Home: Randy’s Song.”
Johnson says he’s been impressed by Cannon’s feel for songs. “He don’t just go in and throw some pieces together and say, ‘That ought to get it done.’ He really does live with this music, and if he don’t like a song, he don’t see any sense in cutting it. … I trust his decisions.”
Winning his contract with BNA (a division of RCA Records) wasn’t easy, Johnson notes. He had to audition seven times before he finally got the nod. But he’s sure it was worth the wait. “RCA, to me, has always put out top-rate artists,” he says. “They’ve always wanted to work with the best.”
Johnson says it was being away from his own infant daughter for two months — while he was working on a construction job — that inspired him to write “The Dollar.” He acknowledges that the song has “touched a lot of people,” but he’s also aware that its sentimentality puts him in perilous territory — where the tender can too easily collapse into the maudlin.
“I tell folks, ‘You got to be careful when you write sentimental kinds of songs like that, because it’s either going to be a big old hit or like peeing in your pants. You might get a warm feeling, but nobody else really cares to know about it.’”
This spring, Johnson will be touring with Rhett Akins as well as headlining his own shows.