Over the past few years, Jamey Johnson has been leading a quiet revolution in country music. He’s been doing so without consciously making announcements or calling attention to himself and without issuing manifestos calling for a revolution.
The man has simply gone about the business of personally rebuilding country music’s basic structure and of summoning the genre’s traditionally strong framework — that of graphic story-telling and simple truths, simple passions, passionate, to-the-bone music and true-life lessons. The result has been country heart-and-soul music with all the grit and sweat and come-to-Jesus fervor the music has been known for all these many years.
And Johnson has not been laboring in the vineyards and the fields all by himself. How many years have George Strait and Alan Jackson and Vince Gill and other lonely evangelists been preaching the country message, only to hear country radio finally tell them to get more commercial?
I was greatly encouraged this week when I was privileged to hear about two-thirds of Ashley Monroe’s upcoming album. It’s produced by Vince Gill, it has a cast of all-star musicians and contains some stone-cold brilliant country songs. Songs with genuine gritty mature content — not frivolous teenage beer-babes-trucks-dirt road ditties.
Jamey Johnson has not gotten a lot of country radio airplay, but he is not playing that game. He records what he wants, and his records are what they are. Come and listen, if you want to. If you don’t care, don’t bother. It won’t trouble him.
That message harkens back throughout country music’s history. Johnson’s hero has always been his fellow Alabama native Hank Williams, and it’s no stretch to observe that Jamey has often explored some of Hank’s themes of loneliness, tragedy, death, loss, salvation and redemption.
Another songwriter named Hank followed that same highway. The late Hank Cochran’s life reads like an epochal country song: born in rural Mississippi, almost died in infancy from several childhood diseases, parents divorced when he was 9, sent to an orphanage, ran away twice from the orphanage, lived with his grandparents and hitchhiked with his uncle to work in oil fields out West, went to California seeking work and formed the singing duo the Cochran Brothers with Eddie Cochran — who was no relation. Eddie later became a pioneering rock ‘n’ roll singer with hits such as “Summertime Blues.”
Now Johnson has just released a landmark tribute album to Cochran, and I can’t think of a riskier commercial venture in today’s country climate of demanding hits now! Hits now! And youth! Youth! Think young! Think young! Good luck to all the one-hit wonders who are going through this cycle of survival of the fittest. Just imagine the number of would-be and wanna-be Taylor Swift replacements who have been chewed up and then discarded by the Nashville hit machinery over the past few years.
Jamey is in no danger of being considered a teen idol, but the notion of a major record label putting out a tribute album to a songwriter who is largely unknown to the entire music-buying public — especially the young music-buying public — is crazy.
I think it’s indicative of the high regard the music community has for Jamey that he was able to wrangle a very impressive assemblage of artists to duet with him on the 16 cuts on this album. Think: Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss, Merle Haggard, Vince Gill, Leon Russell, Emmylou Harris, Ray Price, Asleep at the Wheel, Elvis Costello, Red Lane, George Strait, Ronnie Dunn, Bobby Bare, Lee Ann Womack, Kris Kristofferson and Hank Cochran, himself, before his death.
The album, Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran, has 16 Cochran songs sung by Johnson and his friends in duets and collaborations. Johnson’s song selection is smart and displays his familiarity with Cochran’s catalog.
There are some familiar big hits, such as “Make the World Go Away,” which was a No. 1 hit for Eddy Arnold and has been covered dozens of times. Or “I Fall to Pieces,” which Patsy Cline took to No. 1.
Then there are the lesser-known songs such as “I Don’t Do Windows,” which was an album cut on Cochran’s own 1980 album Make the World Go Away. Or “A Way to Survive,” which was first recorded by the Capricorns in 1964. It was later cut by several singers, including Ray Price, Dottie West, Johnny Bush, Junior Brown and Gene Watson.
Living for a Song is an artistic risk by a successful risk-taker. It’s an artistic risk in the same way that Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and Stardust albums were risks. The result? Stardust sold quintuple platinum, went to No. 1 and the track “Georgia on My Mind” won a Grammy for Willie. Red Headed Stranger went to No. 1 and became a movie.
And it’s a risk in the sense that Vince Gill’s quadruple, almost schizophrenic CD package These Days was a risk. The result? A Grammy for Gill.
Thank the Lord for country risk-takers.
This NASHVILLE SKYLINE column previously appeared on CMT.com. Chet Flippo is Editorial Director for CMT.com.