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Album review: Jamey Johnson's 'The Guitar Song'

September 14, 2010 |  6:00 am

Jamey_johnson_240 Jamey Johnson’s music is hard, like a metal slide on a pedal steel guitar; it’s real, like the kernel of truth within the tall tales swapped by studio musicians after much Jack Daniel's has been consumed. It’s a consummate blend of artifice and self-revelation, an intricately crafted container for elemental stuff – the dirt of work, the sweat of love, the tears of a particularly bad hangover.

Anointed as Nashville’s new official outlaw after 2008’s breakthrough album “That Lonesome Song,” Johnson, with his motorcycle man demeanor and don’t-mess-with-me baritone, fits neatly into the role. Whatever this admitted partier does in his personal life, like his hero Willie Nelson, Johnson makes great music by being attentive to the rules, customizing time-tested musical structures and lyrical themes so they fit him like a custom leather jacket.

“The Guitar Song” is an homage to the clichés, craft and gut instinct involved in writing great country songs. It’s a double-disc set that refreshes the genre’s many commonplaces -- adultery and alcoholism, Christian faith and familial love, working-class fatalism and nostalgia for “back home” -- in 25 beautifully rendered little packages. At its center is the instant classic “That’s Why I Write Songs,” an ode to Johnson’s role models: songsmiths like Whitey Shafer and Bob McDill, who labored in the Music City trenches for decades and, as Johnson sings, “make you laugh or make you cry, might help you make it through a bad goodbye.” That art of expressing sentiments that people can grasp, not reaching either too high or two low, is what makes Johnson, so shaggy on the surface, special.

Johnson’s persona as a “backwoods country boy from Deep South Alabama,” as he calls himself in “Poor Man’s Blues,” is based in reality; he was born in Enterprise, Ala., home of the famous Boll Weevil Monument and not too much else, though he grew up in the nearby city of Montgomery. Yet what makes Johnson important isn’t authenticity. It’s his dogged pursuit of the heart and soul of country music’s clichés, the deep vein of elegance within them.

Divided into two discs (one “black,” one “white”) meant to give structure to its sprawl, “The Guitar Song” doesn’t really require that conceit. The songs on the former seem more akin to outlaw types like Steve Earle and David Allan Coe, while the latter, with broader humor and more macho swaggering, connects to country patriarchs (like Porter Wagoner, Johnson loves a good recitation) and pals such as Trace Adkins and Gretchen Wilson. Best are those, like the rock-tinged “Heartache” and the easy-rolling “Playing the Part,” that tell their stories without much fuss, demonstrating the inventiveness of seasoned players working comfortably within their chosen form.

The playing throughout the album is exquisite; even when Johnson’s mostly co-written lyrics get into dicey territory, as on the ode to birch-rod parenting “By the Seat of Your Pants,” it’s just a joy to listen to him and his band work through their changes. Johnson doesn’t have a huge vocal range, but he knows how to modulate. With “The Guitar Song,” he’s made an ambitious work that goes down easy. Johnson may masquerade as a throwback but what he really aims for is timelessness, and he usually hits his mark.

-- Ann Powers

Jamey Johnson
"The Guitar Song"
Mercury Nashville
Four stars (Out of four)