Since his breakthrough single “The Dollar” released, followed by his CMA Song of the Year-winning track “In Color” (released in 2008), Jamey Johnson has issued music that embraces the grittier side of life through piercing, unvarnished lyrics and ace songcraft. Whether he paints a portrait of a drug user saddled with regret in “High Cost of Living,” or delves into a clever turn of the phrase in “Give It Away,” another CMA-winning track penned by Johnson and recorded by George Strait, Johnson showcases music steeped in the influence of artists such as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard–though notably, he can also churn out pop-country fare, such as “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” a Johnson-penned tune that became a hit for Trace Adkins.
In a video to promote the Country Music Hall of Fame’s exhibit “Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s,” Johnson offered up his thoughts on helping to pass down the music and spirit of country music legends including Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and others, to a new generation.
“Townes Van Zandt’s not around anymore to sing his songs, so somebody’s gotta sing them,” he says. “Vern Gosdin, he’s not here today. Neither is Merle Haggard or George Jones. Without people like me covering those songs, they just stop. If nobody was singing Johnny Cash, there’s a whole generation that would grow up without Johnny Cash. And if you ask me, that’s not gonna be a good world. That’s why the young artists today, it’s important that they learn those songs. It’s important that they pass them along, that you pay respect, but that you also pass along the ministry of those important singers. They had a lot to say that matters.”
“You know, it’s not all love songs and beer songs and party songs. It’s also life songs. You don’t really realize that until you get some age to you and I’m speaking specifically of the young generation. When I was young, I didn’t understand Merle Haggard lyrics the same way that I did when I got to be 25, 30, 40 years old. Those lyrics hold more truth and more wisdom and more meaning than you can possibly realize at your age and when you get more age to you, the more of it you understand. All the more reason and all the more importance in passing along those lyrics and doing those songs live.
“And I have a lot of interest in passing along those legacies, you know, Billy Joe Shaver, Merle Haggard…Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter. I just view myself as a torch that’s passing down from one generation to the next. And if I can be used in that way, maybe that’s a good purpose, is just to remind other people, or even if, you know, there’s gonna be some young ones that grow up never having listened to it live and never having met any of those people. I might be the only one they ever meet that could tell ’em about it. So that’s how I see my role in all of this.”