NEW YORK — It wasn’t until the last part of Friday night’s (Oct. 9) performance at Bowery Ballroom that Jamey Johnson responded to the audience’s shouted requests by stating laconically but unequivocally, “We’re gonna stand up here and play whatever the f*** we want to.” But it was clear all through the show that this is the hard-country hero’s guiding principle.
For all the (justified) Waylon Jennings comparisons he’s earned, it’s this ethos that marks Johnson as a true inheritor of the Outlaw mantle. Here he was in New York City, kicking off a high-profile headlining tour sponsored by CMT, while still doggedly pursuing his muse to the seeming exclusion of commercial concerns. Not only did he leave 2005 Top 10 hit, “The Dollar,” off the set list, he pretty much ignored his first album entirely, opting instead to intersperse new, unreleased songs in between the tunes from his second album, That Lonesome Song.
Things kicked off at the Lower East Side concert hall — a venue usually reserved for rock bands — with a rabble-rousing opening set by up-and-comer Randy Houser, Johnson’s old buddy and occasional co-writer, who freely mixes country, soul and Southern rock. After one of the quickest equipment changeovers ever seen, Johnson casually but authoritatively took the stage, and before he’d finished his first song, “The High Cost of Living,” the stark contrasts between him and his pal were obvious.
The two came up together playing Nashville bars and working with the same basic set of musical influences. However, their approaches couldn’t be more different. Where Houser wholeheartedly worked the crowd, Johnson spoke not a word to the audience until his aforementioned comment about three-quarters of the way through the night. Where Houser pushed his big, bold voice hard, often twisting it around the melody like a soul man and raising intensity by rising to the top of his range, Johnson maintained his trademark earth-shaking rumble throughout his set, keeping his phrasing unadorned and his dynamics evenly understated.
Houser’s set was full of brash, up-tempo tunes, while Johnson seemed almost obsessed with working the small-scale drama of slow-and-lowdown ballads. And most tellingly, where Houser seemed intent on establishing a rapport with the New York crowd, Johnson made it clear he was there strictly to pour his heart into the music. And if some folks happened to be on hand while that happened, well, that was all well and good for them.
Something else that quickly became apparent was Johnson’s ongoing evolution, which seemed to be occurring right before the audience’s eyes and ears, as he abandoned his early songs in favor of newer, emotionally richer, more personal tunes that haven’t even been released yet, like the wry-but-rueful “Nothing Is Better Than You” and the moody “Back to Macon.” No country singer worth his salt ever completely abandons his roots, though, and from his covers of Jennings’ “The Door Is Always Open” and “Dreaming My Dreams” to his Willie-esque acoustic guitar solo on the latter, Johnson remained proudly and undeniably the product of his inspirations. Still, when the crowd took the lead vocal for virtually every word of Johnson’s biggest single, “In Color,” it was plain that the Alabama Outlaw has become a star in his own right.
Star status and multiple Grammy nominations be damned, though. After finishing a full set of music, Johnson brought out Houser for what might have been a quick encore. However, it turned into another whole set, with the two pounding out the kind of cover tunes they both used to play in those beer joints back in the early days.
“We came to New York for two reasons,” Johnson declared, “to get drunk and to play some f***ing country music.” And with that, he and Houser traded vocals on what amounted to a honky-tonk/Outlaw country jukebox — with the pair tearing through Merle Haggard’s “Ramblin’ Fever,” the Charlie Daniels Band’s “Long Haired Country Boy,” the Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See” and more by the likes of George Jones, Johnny Paycheck and other renegade forebears.
By the time they finally said goodbye to the crowd — a mix of awed, respectful admirers and drunk-as-a-skunk revelers — with “Give It Away,” the George Strait hit co-written by Johnson, there was the distinct feeling that everyone had just experienced something that couldn’t be manufactured by any amount of marketing. Somehow, an honest-to-God artist had managed to wander through the workings of the music business without getting the soul squashed out of him. The proof had just been laid out for all to witness, and now there was nothing to do but pray that he manages to keep his high-wire act aloft.View photos of Jamey Johnson and Randy Houser at the Bowery. See the dates and cities for CMT on Tour with Jamey Johnson and Randy Houser.