Jamey Johnson certainly commands the respect of fans and peers alike. The imposing, bearded ex-Marine earned critical love with just about every release since his self-funded album They Call Me Country.
He owns two ACM Awards, two CMA awards and nine Grammy nominations. Oh, and three of his four major label records landed in the top 10, including a platinum-selling record (That Lonesome Song) and his No. 1 album The Guitar Song. He also wrote songs for some of the genre’s most legendary acts.
One of the big stigmas around country music is that it tends to rely on played out tropes. And not just the mainstream stuff. Texas country, outlaw country, red dirt, etc. They all have their artists who hone in on buzz words for their target audience, whether its tailgate parties or Texas pride.
Through his five albums, Johnson manages to feel familiar without sounding it. That combination created an overall package that made it really easy for his label to sell him. (Never mind BNA Records, now Columbia, dropped him after his first album). In 2006, The Dollar felt just enough like George Strait that new audiences let him in. He hit No. 20 in sales on the chart. And that’s without even really releasing a single to radio.
Then, his follow-up, That Lonesome Song, completely smacked you upside the head with its southern rock outlaw undertones. “In Color” earned him praise and won the Academy of Country Music Song of the Year award in 2009.
So naturally, his next album was a double concept record, something that nobody in country music really attempted again until last year with Miranda Lambert’s career-defining The Weight Of These Wings. It’s no surprise Johnson served as an influence to Lambert, even though their careers essentially started at the same time.
In addition to writing for himself, Johnson wrote for some of the genre’s biggest names. Ironically, one of his first outside cuts was also one of his most ridiculous. If you’re saying, “There’s no way Jamey Johnson wrote a song called ‘Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,'” I hate to be the bearer of bad news. But yes, he wrote that tune for Trace Adkins — along with goober country mainstay Dallas Davidson and the now No. 1-selling artist Randy Houser.
At the time, all of them were just starting out. Talk about three very different and very interesting paths from the same co-write.
Johnson also wrote George Strait’s “Give It Away,” “It’s All Going To Pot” (a Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard song) and “Another Side Of You” for Joe Nichols. In other words, he’s a diverse writer capable of writing for others. And you can directly see his influence in artists like Cody Jinks and Whitey Morgan.
So why then, does it seem like Johnson gets “also-ran” status in country music? Why do we forget about him when it comes to the long list of artists making gourmet burgers in the age of McDonald’s?
For starters, Jamey Johnson hasn’t released a new album in five years (he last was a Hank Cochran tribute album). He hasn’t released a collection of original material in seven years. In today’s new-music-every-minute industry, that’s long enough for most people to forget about you.
Johnson recently revealed just why it’s taking so long in an interview with Kentucky Country Music. “About 7 years ago, I got a concussion,” Johnson says. “I slipped on some ice coming out of the studio one night and I hit my head pretty hard. What I found out from a neuroscientist out in Scottsdale, Arizona, here recently is that ever since then, my brain has been locked in a hyper-vigilant state, which it focuses on survival. Anything that isn’t directly relevant to survival, it just doesn’t focus on it all anymore.”
That means he just can’t quite focus on songwriting like before. “The craft is still there,” he assures. “The inspiration isn’t always there and even when it is, it isn’t very easy for me to focus on it the way that I once did.”
Thankfully, it’s coming back little by little. Does that mean we’ll get new music soon? Don’t count on it. But it’s not by design, and it won’t last forever. Let’s hope that Johnson — who still tours regularly — won’t be “underrated” for much longer.