For those of you who follow this blog, it might surprise you to learn I’ve had a long history with country music. My mom was raised among cowboys, cowgirls, horses, bulls and steers. For her, rodeos were a way of life, and a hard life it was. So when she grew up, she shunned the soundtrack of those dusty days — turning her back on the songs of downtrodden drunks and lonely losers. She protected my young ears from this music for a long time, but she couldn’t help my exposure when we would visit her family. My grandfather’s house was always alive with the sounds of Williams, Nelson, Haggard, Jennings and Jones. Back then I associated these songs with ‘old people’.
It wasn’t until the early 90’s when I heard country music that seemed more in line with my generation. Garth Brooks led the way, and in the beginning it was great. My parents were going through a divorce and this music was relevant to my life. Travis Tritt, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, even when I saw a young Tim McGraw open for Little Texas — these young artists were becoming the mainstream stars their predecessors never dreamt of. But then it got ridiculous. The lines between country and pop music started to blur, until every trace of the past was lost in the faces of the beautiful people. Since when do you have to be a supermodel to make country music? It’s ironic that this ‘young’ country made me appreciate the ‘old’ music I heard in my grandfather’s house.
I started to shift my interests to Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, as well as bands like Drive-By Truckers and Lucero — hard working bands that weren’t afraid to keep things ugly. And that’s where Jamey Johnson comes in. Sure, the man has a CMA, but he might be the most uncomfortable person to ever accept one “I’m surprised you allow people like me in here“, and yes, he has written some ridiculous pop country songs for others, but as Steven Soderbergh will direct the Ocean’s Eleven films in order to finance his pet projects like The Girlfriend Experience, Jamey Johnson will give the industry what it wants to pay the bills, so he can do what he wants in his own time — like release a double album in a time of red line record sales, and perform a 2 hour set of almost all cover songs. Jamey Johnson is his own man in an industry as plastic as the people who dominate its charts.
It was immediately evident (to those who didn’t know) that this was not mainstream country when Jamey opened with “High Cost of Living”. The song did climb the charts, and it is about a man losing stuff (wife, land, best friend), but that’s where the similarities end — I seriously doubt you’ll ever hear Rascal Flatts or Lady Antebellum describe situations involving police kicking down motel room doors, let along the real costs associated with cocaine and whores. Jamey Johnson does not sing songs that are universal. These are not stories that a majority of America can relate to. Yet, his records continue to sell. And he continues to pack ’em in at large venues such as Denver’s Grizzly Rose. Last night’s crowd ranged from the young and beautiful, to the old and weathered — from the backward baseball cap and Adidas, to the cowboy boots and ten gallon hats. The vodka red bulls and Jäger shots were flowing just as quick as the whiskey, and the only thing everyone had in common was the long haired, bearded, stoic singer-songwriter on up the stage.
For over two hours we shared this space while Jamey Johnson gave tribute to his icons — living and long gone. Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Sam Cooke, George Jones, Bob Seger — he covered them all. Sometimes going a long stretch (up to four songs) without pulling from his own catalog. After one particular run, I overheard an older, biker-looking dude tell his younger friends ‘this is one badass motherfucker, I had never heard of him!‘ , while at the same time, the girls next to me started to chat amongst themselves, waiting for the next song they recognized. This is what happens at a Jamie Johnson show. I don’t know if he just gets bored with his own material, or if he just prefers singing the songs of the past, but last night’s cover songs outweighed his own material by a considerable sum. Maybe this is just his way of using the position he’s in to introduce the important stuff to the masses? Whatever his reasons, it doesn’t matter, as long as he injects the hits in between. “Macon” had the crowd on their feet, hats in the air; “In Color” had the audience drowning out the band; “Can’t Cash My Checks” is probably more relevant now than when is was written; “Thankful for the Rain” was more than appropriate on this soggy Spring night in the Mile High City. All these great songs, mixed in with all those great covers, made for an impressive argument for the future, by showcasing where country music came from, and where it can go.
Jamey didn’t say a word to the crowd through the whole set. I don’t think he even cracked a smile. A tilt of the plastic red cup in his hand, a Denver or Grizzly Rose reference thrown into a song, that was all that was needed. This might come across as cocky or disrespectful if it were anyone else, but with Jamey Johnson it seemed appropriate. And when he did open his mouth, after the last song, to ‘thank ya’ll for comin’ out to see us tonight‘, like every other aspect of the night, it seemed honest.
High Cost of Living
Place Out on the Ocean
Freedom to Stay (Waylon Jennings)
Playin’ The Part
That Lonesome Song
Long Black Veil (Lefty Frizzell)
Can’t Cash My Checks
The Guitar Song
Waymore’s Blues (Waylon Jennings)
Amanda (Waylon Jennings)
Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Sam Cooke)
Still Doin’ Time (George Jones)
Mowin’ Down the Roses
Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way (Waylon Jennings)
Write Your Own Songs (Willie Nelson)
That’s The Way Love Goes (Merle Haggard)
Thankful For The Rain
Tulsa Time (Don Williams)
Turn The Page (Bob Seger)
In The Pines (traditional)
Lonely At The Top
11 Months and 29 Days (Johnny Paycheck)
Give It Away (George Strait) (written by Jamey Johnson)
I Saw the Light (Hank Williams)