Jamey Johnson is a country music anomaly — an artist who’s gained and maintained high visibility over the years despite a minimal chart presence. Consider this: since first charting in 2006 with “The Dollar,” a tune that took him to No. 14, Johnson has had only three songs that edged into the Top 50, the highest among these being “In Color,” which peaked at No. 9 in 2009.
Yet from the vantage point of his 44th birthday Sunday (July 14), Johnson looks back on a career that includes live and recorded collaborations with such notables as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Jones, Alison Krauss, Dierks Bentley, Lee Ann Womack, guitar god Joe Bonamassa and his biggest inspiration, the band Alabama.
You can credit much of his success to a voice that comes at you like a bulldozer pushing gravel, an elemental sound that overwhelms with its relentless drive. And he’s a pretty fair songwriter, too, having penned or co-penned both of his hit singles as well as George Strait’s “Give It Away” and Trace Adkins’ “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” and “Ladies Love Country Boys.”
Johnson was born and grew up near Montgomery, Alabama. Naturally enough, the group named for that state was an early and crucial 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 told CMT.com in 2006. “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.”
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. 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.” A number of songs Johnson demoed became hits for other artists, including “Songs About Me” (Trace Adkins) and “That’s How They Do It in Dixie” (Hank Williams Jr.)
The voice that made him a demo reliable has since elevated him to the man to call when another layer of gravitas is needed. Not that he can’t be lighthearted, too. Just listen to him romp through “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” with Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg and Kris Kristofferson.
Among the many high-visibility appearances he’s racked up are multiple guest shots at Farm Aid, a duet with Alison Krauss at the Gershwin Prize Awards Concert for Willie Nelson, a spotlight turn at The Heroes and Friends Tribute for Randy Travis and a chance to sing lead with Alabama on that group’s Alabama & Friends at the Ryman show (which was recorded for an album). He recorded “Yesterday’s Wine” with George Jones and Blackberry Smoke and stood beside Merle Haggard on stage–at Haggard’s invitation–to sing “Long Black Veil.”
A peek at Johnson’s website reveals his busy touring life as a headliner. The nearly two dozen dates currently listed finds him scheduled for such high profile venues as We Fest, Farm Aid, Billy Bob’s Texas and the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas.
With momentum like that, who needs the charts?