A shaggy dog story involving Jamey Johnson. Sort of.
See, the thing is, I love a good shaggy dog story. I used to have a small repertoire suitable for sharing over a pitcher or two, right up until the night I was thrown out of Linda’s up on Capitol Hill, around the corner from where the Vox Populi Gallery briefly set up shop. Thrown out by my business partner in the gallery. And I was buying, best I remember, even though he had the trust fund.
Jamey Johnson is a shaggy fellow, and one hell of a country singer. There’s a note on the cover of the promotional copy of That Lonesome Song from label head Luke Lewis which reads:
“Jamey Johnson wrote and recorded That Lonesome Song last year with no input or direction from a record label. We signed him and asked only that he include a few more recent compositions to the album. Like Willie Nelson’s 1974 classic Phases and Stages, it deals with the dissolution of a marriage. It is a concept album that’s full of passion, pain and truth.
“I am sending it to everyone I know who loves music. Particularly country music.
“I trust that you will like it as much as I do and that you will share it, too.”
Signed, Luke Lewis.
Mr. Lewis doesn’t know me; we were on a panel together once, and I formed the notion that he was one of the good guys, even though he ran Mercury when Shania Twain was their shining star. But I’m glad he sent me that CD because I think “Mowing Down the Roses” is one of the great songs of any country era, the best song George Jones hasn’t recorded.
But I also think Mr. Johnson is a complicated character, and I know – given his work, and the fact that his last album sold 800,000 copies – that he doesn’t give two shakes of a rat’s tail what I think. As it should be.
There’s another song on that album which troubles me some, the spoken coda to the eleventh track, “Dreaming My Dream of You,” a road story that’s rough as a cob.
Up until the CD player in my truck broke down for the last time and tried to eat either the black or the white side of Johnson’s new double-album, The Guitar Song, I was trying to decide how I felt about all that.
And then I heard this story from a kid who briefly worked for me. It’s a true story, best I know, happened between his daddy and his grandfather a couple counties over from where I now live. And I think how you react to it will say a lot about how you might react to Johnson’s music.
As the story goes, the son had a dog he loved right up until the moment it ended up flat in the middle of the road. It was summer, and they were busy, so it was a couple days before his dad tied a rope around the corpse and commenced to dragging it across the road and the driveway and into the back yard.
Well, y’know, it gets hot here in Kentucky, especially on the blacktop, and by the time the dog got anywhere near its proposed burial spot in back of the house, why dad gagged so bad his teeth ended up in the middle of all of it. Son standing there, maybe helping, maybe not.
“Get the shovel.”
So they dig a hole. But it’s hot and the ground here is mostly clay and not much topsoil and there was that stench to consider.
Seemed big enough, so they caught up the corpse of the boy’s beloved dog and dragged it the rest of the way into the hole they’d dug, and shoveled dirt atop the mess. Which was fine right up until the moment they realized the hole wasn’t deep enough and the dog’s front paws were sticking up out of the earth.
“Go get the lawnmower,” the dad said.
That’s not what Johnson’s new song, “Dog in the Yard” is about, but it could be. (Or “Poor Man Blues,” for that matter. Heh.)
We romanticize country. We romanticize living in the country, reading Wendell Barry and Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold. And a city boy like me could piss away a ton of money trying to live up to all that, except I don’t have it and my father-in-law’s a good and patient teacher.
But there is a roughness to country. To the country. I think the anger on talk radio is an attempt for suburban salarymen to recapture some portion of that roughness, but that’s another blog. There’s a roughness to doing work that might cause bodily injury, or involve killing dinner.
And there is a roughness to Jamey Johnson, which is why he’s worth listening to. Why he matters, especially given the context in which he operates. Not all of this set, but almost all of it. I am not always persuaded by his power ballads (“Cover Your Eyes,” say, since it’s playing just now), but I don’t like power ballads in hard rock, either. “Macon,” on the other hand, has that easy Don Williams confidence about it. That one can come for a walk. And maybe his nods to the past are unnecessary (“Set ‘Em Up Joe” and “For the Good Times”), but I sure can’t complain about being asked to listen to those songs again. He has a voice, somewhere between Ernest Tubb and Waylon Jennings when he wants it to be, and whoever is playing guitar on this has spent plenty of time listening to Jerry Reed. That he hangs out with and acknowledges the work of Nashville’s finest songwriters (including a duet here with Bill Anderson on “The Guitar Song,” though that, too, isn’t my favorite cut), that’s good, too.
He’s sold enough records, there will be imitators, a scurrying to find some other dangerous country boy with an attitude and a facility with words, but there’s only one. This one.
Every year Nashville anoints a couple new stars. Sure enough, Jamey Johnson has benefited from that, even without playing the game. But when all that washes over, I’m pretty sure I’ll be seeking out and buying his music. This one I believe in. And it makes me smile to hear him on the radio, driving around in that little red truck.