It takes a mixture of generosity and suspension of disbelief to want to hear what Jamey Johnson has done since “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” (he was one of the three writers who gave Trace Adkins that particular joke-gone-obnoxious). But anyone who can muster those qualities will be rewarded, because Johnson’s 2008 CD, That Lonesome Song, is a country album in the best sense: long on heartache, and a little rough and loose around the edges.
For those who don’t often look to Music Row for real, raw signs of life, That Lonesome Song partially confirms such convictions, since it both is and isn’t of that world. But it is compelling. Johnson recorded the album on his own (his first label had dropped him after a forgettable debut; Mercury later picked the set up as-is) with a band of musician friends; he left in off-the-cuff pedal steel intros and endings, as well as errant sounds of rowdy camaraderie. Johnson’s complaint that country isn’t country anymore (on “The Last Cowboy”) isn’t lip service, which ought to earn him the right to brag on where his influences and his last name land him: “Between Jennings And Jones” (as the last track on the disc is titled).
On That Lonesome Song, Johnson narrates a lonely crawl out of a self-destructive pit in a way that feels intensely personal, no matter how far it actually ranges from the details of his own crash-and-burn. His prickly baritone trails off into regret during the hard country ballad “Angel”, menaces during the percolating southern R&B of “Mowin’ Down The Roses” (that song’s barbed humor makes up for the idiocy of “H.T.B.”), and passes through twenty shades of grief and longing between.
That most of the songs were the work of two, or even three, professional writers (always including Johnson, except for two songs he pulled from Waylon Jennings’ Dreaming My Dreams) didn’t dilute them; they’re sturdy enough to bear the weight of a troubled soul exorcising his demons.