(CMT Hot Dish is a weekly feature written by veteran columnist Hazel Smith. Author of the cookbook, Hazel's Hot Dish: Cookin' With Country Stars, she also hosts CMT's Southern Fried Flicks With Hazel Smith and shares her recipes at CMT.com.)
This is my fifth year hosting CMT's Southern Fried Flicks, and I'd like to thank each of you for this opportunity. I've enjoyed every star who has visited my kitchen. From my first guest, Brad Paisley, followed by George Jones, Little Jimmy Dickens, Bill Anderson, Larry the Cable Guy and lots more, there's been about 60. I've loved 'em all.
This past week, I was again honored when singer-songwriter Jamey Johnson came to visit. I loved his That Lonesome Song album. His new album, The Guitar Song, speaks volumes about the man. After listening to the record, I concluded he was not ashamed to cry and not afraid to pray. Jamey humbly nodded his head when I told him this.
We had some chips and Hazel-made dip and talked about growing up in Alabama. Born in Enterprise, his family relocated to Troy. When he was 3, they moved to Montgomery, where he grew up. Montgomery is also where the legendary Hank Williams once lived and where he's buried.
"I'd go to Hank's grave a lot," Jamey told me. "I'd take friends there, and we'd pick and sing around his grave. The first show I ever did was in Montgomery with Daryle Singletary. I took him to Hank's grave. Took Old Maple [Jamey's guitar] with me. Took it out of the case and dropped it. Busted the back of the guitar on Hank's grave. The grave ... it's a place of honor to me. Hank wrote songs about my life."
He said he found it amazing Hank could have written and recorded so much in the 29 years he lived. But Jamey also claims Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings and Vern Gosdin as early influences.
"I didn't just listen," he explained. "I studied. I learned the ins and outs of how they did each note and how they wrote each word -- and why. And Alabama. Mama had a stack of Alabama albums -- every album Alabama ever made. I studied them. I remember, at one time, there was a stack of six albums, and I knew each and every word of each and every song in that stack."
Jamey was 11 or 12 when he learned to play guitar. He moved to Nashville on Jan. 1, 2000, and got a job at a sign company.
"Moved in a stolen truck with two dogs," he said. "Finally made enough money for rent."
His first taste of success resulted from sitting in the Wildhorse Saloon in downtown Nashville with two other songwriters, Randy Houser and Dallas Davidson. The bartender was a pal and was serving the threesome free beer.
As the night progressed, they were watching the women on the dance floor. One really heavyset gal was fairly intoxicated. She'd shake her backside -- and somehow reverse the rotation.
After Jamey remarked, "Half of her behind is the size of a 19-inch television," Randy uttered the phrase, "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk." Without speaking, the three songwriters left the Wildhorse. Within an hour, the song was completed and recorded as a work tape. Once Trace Adkins recorded it and made it a hit single, the money caught up the rent for three poor boys -- Jamey, Randy and Dallas.
We talked about when George Strait's hit, "Give It Away," was named song of the year at the ACM Awards. Co-writers Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon pushed Jamey between the two of them as they took their turns at the microphone. But it was Jamey who stole the show when he thanked his ex-wife "because she had as much to do with the song as anybody." The crowd went crazy. They knew the gist of the song was about giving away all the stuff a couple had accumulated together because their relationship was over and done for.
Jamey's first major recording contract was with BNA Records. Although he enjoyed a Top 20 single in 2005 with "The Dollar," he was eventually dropped by the label. Still determined to make music, he and his favorite cronies kept pushing and put together That Lonesome Song.
"We put it on the Internet," he said. "We started getting calls from Music Row. About the third call I got was from Luke Lewis [chief of the Universal Music Group's Nashville operations]. I played it for Luke, and he said, 'Don't mess with this sound.' I said, 'Hell, that's what I came here to say.'"
It's been a good combination.
"I take care of the music," Jamey said. "Luke takes care of the business. So far, it's worked out just right."
That Lonesome Song had folks all over the country saying Jamey was the musical heir to Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. I had to ask how that made him feel.
"I imagine I felt the same way Merle felt when he was compared to Johnny Cash and Jimmie Rodgers," he replied. "It's humbling."
Jamey said my pimento cheese sandwich on white bread tasted just like his mama's. I took that as a major compliment.
He presented me a vinyl copy of The Guitar Song and autographed it. The project features 25 songs. He explained they had recorded so many sessions, certain songs would flow together. He was determined to get as much music released as he could.
Jamey wrote or co-wrote all but five songs on The Guitar Song. The exceptions include "Lonely at the Top" (written by Don Cook, Chick Raines and the late Keith Whitley) and "Good Morning Sunrise" (written by Arlis Albritton). He also recorded cover versions of three hits -- Vern Gosdin's "Set 'Em Up Joe" (written by Hank Cochran, Dean Dillon, Buddy Cannon and Gosdin), Mel Tillis' self-penned "Mental Revenge" and Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times."
Songwriting and great songwriters are very important to Jamey. It led him to take his 6-year-old daughter with him to visit Cochran, a legendary songwriter who was in his last days in a battle with cancer. Hank's credits include classics such as "I Fall to Pieces," "The Chair," "Make the World Go Away," "Ocean Front Property" and "She's Got You." During the visit, Jamey, Buddy Cannon and Billy Ray Cyrus were there and sang songs written by Cochran -- gospel songs, hit songs -- all night long. The great songwriter smiled now and then before passing away, Jamey recalled.
I asked Jamey about his eight years in the U.S. Marines.
"I'm very proud to have served in the Marines," he said. "I respect the Marines. They gave me guidance and stability. I'd wake up every day and have a purpose. My road manager, I served with him in the Marines. His family is like my family. All the time when I travel around to Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, I see the guys I traveled around with when I was in the Marines. They are still like family."
See the new Hot Dish recipe of the week: Macaroni and Tomatoes.