In 2005, a Nashville-based session musician who also dropped out of college while a straight-A student at Jacksonville State University co-wrote a song about a young woman he saw dancing at a bar. 15 years later, Trace Adkins’ recording of the Jamey Johnson (the band-member alluded to above) co-written song “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” spearheaded not just Adkins’ crossover country success but Johnson’s own iconoclastic acclaim. Three solo albums and notably, two iconic hit singles later, he’s carved a space for country music’s essential and always important outlaw aesthetic in the modern era.
At present, 11 years have passed since the release of his gold-selling number-one Billboard country chart album The Guitar Song. However, in a May 2021 interview with Rolling Stone, he offered an appropriately succinct and unflinchingly honest reason as to why so much time has passed since he’s created new material:
“I don’t need to put out an album, and I know some people do put out albums every year. But I only want to put out an album if it’s going to be good, if it’s going to be something that I want to go out and play every night. And if I’ve got those songs, then I have no reason not to put it out. But in the absence of that, I don’t see why I would. You know, I wouldn’t waste everybody’s time and attention to come hear the newest bucket of crap.”
His 2005 single “The Dollar” and 2008’s “In Color” are clearly songs that defy his “bucket of crap” condemnation of rehashing concepts and ideas in place of creating fewer songs that have a greater personal impact.
In 2006, Edward Morris wrote for CMT.com that “’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.” Lyrically, nearly two decades later, its impact and delivery are still profoundly compelling:
Well mama tells her little man your daddy’s got a job
And when he goes to work they pay him for his time
The young boy gets to thinkin’ heads up to his bedroom
Comes runnin’ back with a quarter and four dimes
Says mama how much time will this buy me
Is it enough to take me fishin’ or throw a football in the street
If I’m a little short then how much more does daddy need
To spend some time with me
As for 2008’s “In Color,” it was named Song of the Year at the 2009 ACM and CMA Awards. Johnson originally wrote it for Trace Adkins, then asked Adkins if he could record it himself. Instead, Adkins allowed Johnson the opportunity to record his own material.
The song details a grandfather recalling the stories behind old black and white photographs to his grandson. The song elevates the meaning of the notion that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” As an Engine 145 review notes, “Using photographs as a way to describe a series of events along the timeline of a person’s life isn’t a new songwriting technique, but it takes a talented songwriter to fill each verse with such vivid and emotive imagery without becoming overwrought.”
For instance, Johnson’s ability to highlight the time, place, and emotion of a photograph — via song — stands out in this, of many instances:
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
Aside from his own hits and Adkins’ “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” he also penned George Strait’s 2006-released number-one single “Give It Away.” Furthermore, in the vein of songwriting, his 2012 covers album Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran saw the noted singer-songwriter celebrate iconic singer-songwriter Cochran and work alongside notable stars including Ray Price, Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, George Strait, Vince Gill and Merle Haggard.
In the previously mentioned 2006 CMT.com interview, Johnson noted that he dropped out of college because he “figured [he’d] rather drink beer and chase women for a living and somehow tie that to music.”
Fifteen years later, his skill as a songwriter has — like it has for many outlaw types in country music — found a deeper, broader, and more impactful calling.
“I love writing songs, and I love making music with my friends in the studio,” he told Rolling Stone. As far as getting back into the studio, he’s evasive about an answer, but as always, direct regarding his goals: “When I feel like it’s time, we’re going to get focused and go in and make that record everybody wants so bad to hear.”