Jamey Johnson hails from Montgomery, Ala. He's an ex-Marine corporal who, back in the '90s, got his discharge the same week his unit was ordered to Iraq. Johnson is also a country singer-songwriter whose 2008 album, titled That Lonesome Song, showed a storyteller not afraid to go into dark places. That record went gold last year and had critics talking about him as the heir to artists such as Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. Johnson's ambitious new record is a 25-song, double-CD set called The Guitar Song.
On his last record, Johnson stood out from the usual gang of clean-scrubbed Nashville pseudo-cowboys like an unwashed ranch hand at a horse breeders' cocktail party. He sang about crash-and-burn outlaw types and workaday broken hearts, pot-smoking lapsed Baptists and angry exes, while his band played frayed, jammed-out honky-tonk rock.
That record made him a successful country singer at a time when an awful lot of people -- people like the ones in his songs -- weren't doing so well economically, an irony that wasn't lost on him. His new album opens in a bar, with a successful singer bending the ear of a dude who puts his problems in perspective.
The Guitar Song is split into two halves, the dark Black Album and the slightly less dark White Album. But understand: Johnson is a bluesman at heart. So even a White Album track called "Good Morning Sunrise" isn't exactly a happy wake-up call.
Twenty-five songs is a lot, and not every one is perfectly turned. But Johnson is a heck of a writer, and his batting average is really good. Even the relative duds are interesting, like "California Riots," a kiss-off to the Golden State that never specifies which riots he's imagining -- old immigrants vs. new ones? Gay-marriage proponents vs. gay-marriage opponents? Johnson isn't telling, because his main point is that he's a man rooted in the American South. And between the country weepers and Southern-rock burners, his new album is about how rich the tradition of Southern music remains, at least in the hands of a guy who's already looking like one of the greats.