(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
There are some intriguing success stories in country music right now, and it’s gratifying to see that that tradition continues. Lady Antebellum debuts at No. 1 on the country album chart this week with their first work, James Otto is defying predictions and scoring on the chart and Jamey Johnson returns from record label purgatory with a sterling single. All three are getting by purely on their original music, which is a concept I heartily endorse.
Lady A, if I may be so bold as to assume familiarity with the group, has done it quietly and in a traditional country way. Just hard work and devotion to music. They’re not a flashy or gimmicky group, which means they have a chance to stick around for a long time if they choose to work toward that goal. Their self-titled first album is a solid set of down-to-earth music that showcases songwriting and harmony singing — two things that have never truly gone out of fashion in country.
Otto, as far as I know, is the first ever major label country artist with that last name. He languished on one record label before getting off that dead horse and starting over. He long labored in the shadows of his better-known MuzikMafia compadres, but word of his talent spread around town over the past few years. Now he’s getting the chance to show what he can do on a larger scale. He’s a nice-looking guy, but he’s never going to be accused of being one of the constant crop of ever-more-photogenic, gleaming, styled, Chiclet-toothed, magazine cover dudes we get now and then. He just writes ‘em and sings ‘em.
His second CD, Sunset Man, is deep with good songs and debuted at No. 2 on the country album chart and is still in the Top 5. He co-wrote nine of the 11 songs and co-produced with John Rich. The songs are rocking country with some heft and substance to them and more than a touch of soul.
Jamey Johnson, like Otto, knows it’s time to get off your horse when it dies. He put out what I feel is a damned good first album a couple of years ago, but he and the label didn’t see eye to eye and he finally became free. He’s long been known as one of the best songwriters around but has been determined to try to make it as a solo artist as well. God speed to him.
The one time I sat and talked with Johnson for a while, I found him to be extremely knowledgeable about country music. He knows the history and appreciates the heritage of country music, and he honors the pioneers who have come before. He knows their roles in building the music traditions that he’s continuing and extending and trying to improve upon. But, importantly, Johnson is not emulating them. He’s been working at carving out his own identity. Like Otto, he doesn’t look like he’ll ever grace the cover of GQ. He looks … interesting, which I guess is a way to say his face looks lived in. He’s certainly done some living, not all of it easy. But therein often lies the path of great songwriting.
And Jamey Johnson has written some very good ones and will be a great songwriter one day. He also co-wrote “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” which I hope earned him a load of FU money. But way beyond that, he’s writing or co-writing some songs that’ll be around for a long time, such as George Strait’s “Give It Away,” Joe Nichols’ “Another Side of You” and Trace Adkins’ “I Got My Game On,” as well as some of his own album cuts.
Johnson’s first album, The Dollar, had an Outlaw feel and a lot of good songs. It got off to an encouraging start with the release of the title song. Then things stalled. The label dropped him. Last year, he wrote and recorded, on his own, the album That Lonesome Song and posted it online as a download. It was a huge song progression from The Dollar. Songs such as “That Lonesome Song” and “Stars in Alabama” show a maturing writer. And vocally he’s invoking the gravitas of the great honky-tonk singers, like Waylon and Haggard. That first album reflected the preoccupations of the honky-tonk troubadour and reveler. The second takes a look at the larger world and is much more reflective and introspective. This is one serious dude.
The online album invited a second album deal with a major Nashville label. So I’m awaiting his third album release. His current single (which is also on his That Lonesome Song is one of the best country songs I have heard in a long time. “In Color” should not be a country hit, if we went by what the industry experts say audiences want in country songs right now. They want, experts say, fun and escapism, bright songs about sex and romance and cars and youth and good times. Instead, with “In Color,” Johnson has painted an incredibly evocative and indescribably moving tale of young love, of living through the Great Depression and World War II. It’s told by a grandfather showing old black-and-white snapshots to his grandson:
This one here was taken overseas
In the middle of hell in 1943, it was winter time
You can almost see my breath
That was my tailgunner, Ol’ Johnny McGee
A high school teacher from New Orleans
And he had my back, right through the day we left
And if it looks like we were scared to death
Like a couple of kids trying to save each other
You should’ve seen it in color.