Jamey Johnson looks like an escapee from The Hell's Angels, so you'd be forgiven if you expected some sort of death metal caterwaul to erupt from your stereo speakers.
Instead, Johnson sounds like a good ol' boy from Montgomery, Alabama, which is what he is, and his second album, That Lonesome Song, recaptures everything that was great about those classic Merle Haggard and George Jones honky-tonk singles from the mid-to-late '60s. The pedal steel weeps, the lead guitar rumbles deep in the bass range, and Johnson unleashes one of those voices that is equal parts heavenly soul and red clay dirt.
Good ol' boy is a relative term, by the way. Like another good ol' boy from Montgomery, Hank Williams, Jamey's lived a hard life. After an eight-year stint in the marines, Johnson got off to a belated start, recorded the superb 2005 debut album The Dollar, which was both a critical and commercial smash, and then proceeded to drink and drug himself right out of a career. Erratic gigs, the emotional devastation resulting from a separation and divorce, and general boorish, obnoxious behavior led to him being dropped from his first label in 2007. For the, umm, record, you have to work pretty hard to do this when your first album generates a Top 10 hit. But give the man credit. He screwed it up royally.
So he's back with his second album (out August 5th), and let me just say it now. This will be the best country record released in 2008. Hands down. Chronicling the sordid and sad events of the past three years, That Lonesome Song is both a traditional country music tour de force and a harrowing singer/songwriter confessional album. Imagine Late for the Sky-era Jackson Browne hitchhiking to Redneckville and given a George Jones voice transplant. This is wild, untamed music sung in a wild, untamed voice, and it's brilliant.
"The high cost of livin' ain't nothin' like the cost of livin' high," he starts out, and it's one of those classic country turns of phrase that is almost, but not quite, too cute for its own good. But he fleshes out the details with a tale of whores and cocaine and toking on a bong in the Baptist Church parking lot, and by the end it's not too hard to believe that the cost was a steep one indeed. For one, the price included the loss of his marriage, a fact that he documents in mournful detail on "Sending an Angel to Hell" and in pissed-off fashion on "Mowin' Down the Roses," where he fires up the John Deere tractor and smashes right through his ex's beloved garden, disembarking long enough to dump her perfume down the toilet as well. There's repentance here, and some clear-eyed acknowledgement of being a fuck up, but there's plenty of righteous and not-so-righteous indignation as well. What else would you expect from somebody who signs off with a song called "Between Jennings and Jones," which is right where you'll find Jamey's music at the record store? Like Waylon he carefully cultivates that outlaw image, and like George he has the voice of a slumming angel. He's made a superb album. And I'm not just saying that because he looks and sounds like the kind of guy you don't want to piss off.