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Jamey Johnson’s ‘Guitar’ puts a new strum on country music

Jamey Johnson drives the last car Waylon Jennings owned, and he rents office space that the late guitarist and producer Chet Atkins once occupied. But the acclaimed singer and songwriter, whose new album is The Guitar Song, doesn’t see himself as a collector of country music history. He views himself more as a caretaker.

“There’s no magic in those things at all, they’re just things,” says Johnson at the control board in Nashville’s RCA Studio A, where Atkins oversaw the recording of many country hits. “But to me, they’re constant reminders. Everywhere I look, there’s something else I need to be careful with. I don’t ever feel like I own those things; I’m just looking after them till I can pass them on.

“Traditional country music is a lot the same way with me. I’m not really in charge of anything right now; I’m just looking after it till I can leave it to somebody else.”

These days, Johnson, 35, appears to be doing a fine job taking care of the music. After having co-written singles like George Strait’s Give It Awayand Trace Adkins’ Honky Tonk Badonkadonk, the Alabama native hit on his own in 2008 with In Color, which reviewed a life’s worth of black-and-white photographs and concluded, “You should have seen it in color.”

In Color took top-song honors from both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association, though it peaked only at No. 7 on USA TODAY’s country airplay chart. That Lonesome Song, the album that contained In Color, has sold more than 831,000 units and still averages 3,000-plus each week, more than two years after its release.

 The Guitar Song doubles down on Johnson’s past success. An impressive set in quantity (25 tracks) and quality, it recalls the outlaw tradition of Jennings and Willie Nelson in both the tone of the songs and the way it willfully runs counter to country music’s prevailing business wisdom. The album made its debut atop Billboard‘s country albums chart last month and has sold 114,000 copies.

Though Music Row still relies largely on radio to sell albums, there’s no obvious smash: Current single Playing the Part has barely cracked the top 40. At a time when some labels have decreased the number of songs offered on an album, Johnson is releasing two discs’ worth of material.

“When we got done, we noticed that the songs were almost split down the middle, in terms of that target emotion that they draw out,” Johnson says. Using the Chinese concept of yin and yang, he sequenced the songs according to the emotions they elicited. “We put half our songs on a ‘black’ album and half our songs on a ‘white’ album. And we started them off in terms of what level they would be on that side of the scale.”

The Black disc is dark, indeed: One song depicts heartache as an ancient malevolence that growls, “By the time you know I’m on you, buddy, it’s too late.” The White disc isn’t always lighthearted: One song acknowledges that the “good times ain’t what they used to be,” and another imagines a serious conversation with God.

Johnson wrote most of the songs, sometimes with country greats like Bill Anderson and Bobby Bare. He also included a handful of covers, like the Kris Kristofferson-written For the Good Times, Mel Tillis’ Mental Revenge and Set ‘Em Up Joe, a cover of a 1988 hit by Vern Gosdin, recorded the day Gosdin died.

“That was one of our musical heroes,” Johnson says. “Not just that, but the image of a true country gentleman died that day. That’s what Vern always was to me, not just as an entertainer but as a songwriter. He wasn’t afraid to tell you both sides of the story, to tell you how things really were. So it was befitting to me that we got a chance to honor him that way.”

The Guitar Song is unlikely to yield radio hits, but the quality hardly drops from Lonely at the Top, a cover of an old Keith Whitley song about learning to deal with fame, to the poignant My Way to You, which closes the White disc.

Still, it’s a double-sized album in a singles-driven marketplace.

“There’s something inside of me that wants me to see it succeed without a big single,” says Universal Music Group Nashville chairman Luke Lewis.

Universal will rely more on media coverage, online word-of-mouth and the accolades that are likely to come at award times, says Lewis, and he believes Universal can sell a couple hundred thousand without a radio hit. “One of the reasons I’m so hopeful for the success of this record is that it will re-affirm a lot of people’s faith in the album as an art form,” he says.

If Johnson cares about how The Guitar Song will sell, or Universal’s challenges in marketing it, he’s not letting on.

“I don’t think about that stuff when I’m making records,” he says. “I don’t think about that stuff when I’m not making records. I just don’t think about it.”

Courtesy of USAToday.com.

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