Jamey Johnson Lives Country Music “In Color”

Alabama Native Bounces Back From Professional and Personal Upheaval

Jamey Johnson’s album, That Lonesome Song, sounds like it could have been pulled from the vault of a 1970s recording session in Nashville. His rich voice underscores the bare-bones production on the album, yet the music sounds contemporary enough to make the first single, “In Color,” a hit at country radio. So where do you go from here?

“We’re looking ahead to figure out where we fall in country music, but I’m not concerned with that at all,” says Johnson, who isn’t exactly shy in interviews. “Right now the best thing I can do is pick up my guitar, take the stage and try not to be an asshole for about an hour. Eventually everything is gonna work out.”

A native of Montgomery, Ala., Johnson scored his first country hit with “The Dollar” in 2005, but then endured some devastating trials, even as Trace Adkins (“Honky Tonk Badonkadonk”) and George Strait (“Give It Away”) were helping him make a living. In April 2007, Johnson started recording That Lonesome Song as an independently released, digital-only album before partnering with Mercury Nashville for a wider release.

In a recent interview with CMT.com, Johnson talks about the extra noises on the album, making his mother cry and the lesson he’s learned through the hard times.

CMT: With this album sounding so bare, how did you know when it was done?

Johnson: Oh, I guess it’s just like a good cake: Sometimes you just need to put it in the oven and see what’s gonna happen. I hope we got everything the way it needed to be. We kept listening to it, and every time I listened to it, there would be something else … one more little detail here, and most of that stuff went away with mixing. We took all the gadgetry out of it. The click track went away. The auto-tuner went away.

That’s not to say we didn’t tweak something here or there if it was a little out of line — because we sure did — but we tried to leave it as bare and as raw as we could possibly get. We wanted it to sound like a live show. I wanted you to feel like a fly on the wall of the studio as we went down and cut all these songs, and you get to hear all the stories and jokes and people having fun and chairs creaking and people stomping pedals.

Did you ask the steel player to keep going at the end of the songs, or did he do that on his own?

We wanted it to be just like a show. If it was a show and you weren’t getting any response, would you play? We’re in the studio, we’re not getting any feedback from the audience and we didn’t know when it was time to stop. (laughs) So we just kind of keep on going.

You co-wrote “Stars of Alabama,” about a musician’s relationship to his mom, with Alabama’s Teddy Gentry. What did your mom think of that song?

She cried. Mom was a big Alabama fan growing up. She got the first record out of the box every time they put out a record. For her, just to know that I even met him, she thought that was the coolest thing in the world. … I had met him here and there, and we traded phone numbers and kept talking about writing a song and everything else. He just called me up out of the blue one day and said, “Man, I’m up in my office. Come over here and write a song with me.” I turned my truck around so fast, I probably cut across the median on I-40. (laughs) But I got over there, and as soon as I sat down, the first thing I thought about was mama. We sat and wrote this song about a phone conversation from the road talking to mama. And when you get out there, sometimes you get a little disconnected. Mama’s always that force that brings it all right back to you and puts your feet back on the ground a little bit.

Did she worry that you were losing direction?

Oh, she’s a mama. She worries about me, no matter what. You can’t put that woman’s mind to rest.

What was a typical day like between your earlier deal with RCA Records and starting to work on this album?

Oh, it got miserable there for a while because I had a lot to celebrate, but at the same time, I had a lot of stuff that just went horribly. Getting dropped off the label, being in the middle of that divorce, it was just an awful load of stress to take around with you all the time. And at the same time, I’ve got to go celebrate … because I’ve got a big No. 1 on this or got a big trophy or a bunch of money. You know what I mean? You want to go out and party with your friends.

The whole time we were out there promoting “The Dollar” and doing those shows, “Badonkadonk” makes another charge and did its thing. I’m still out partying with my friends, but I come to realize I’m just pouring whiskey on pain. And at the end of the night, I didn’t feel like celebrating anymore. I’m still hurting pretty bad, especially after I got dropped. I just realized, “Man, this is not a good thing. I need to quit this.” I quit drinking about a month before I got dropped, and I didn’t touch another drop of alcohol until, I guess, over a year later when we stood up there and were getting the song of the year award in Las Vegas [at the ACM Awards for “Give It Away”]. That night, I went out and had a couple drinks and went to bed. Everything’s all right. I’m feeling happy again, and that’s where I am today. I just do things more in moderation these days than I used to.

Get a sneak peek of Jamey Johnson’s performance on CMT’s Unplugged at Studio 330.