Jamey Johnson—with his increasingly scraggly beard, checkered past and gruff demeanor —is a natural fit for the role of country music outlaw singer. So far, however, he’s been only a bit player on the genre’s main stage: Despite collecting a veritable library of critical acclaim (along with a gold album and two “Song of the Year” wins), Johnson’s singles have struggled at radio—just as he’s struggled to escape the career shackles that come along with playing the part in which he’s been cast.
Johnson is supposed to be a counterpoint—an artist whose music appeals to fans who like their country music a little bit rough around the edges—not one of the artists at the head of country music’s march into the future.
Trouble is? The guy sold 650,000 copies of his album That Lonesome Song (even though he charted only hit single from the record), making it damn tough for anyone to argue that only a sliver of the audience wants to hear him sing.
That fact presents something of a conundrum for a country music establishment that has worked diligently to market country music as a modern, mainstream and family-friendly format that represents the supposed values and sensibilities of a wider than ever swath of the American middle class.
Country music in 2010 is not supposed to mention pot, or crack, or whores, or “depression pills.” It’s supposed to be about Jesus, and babies, and hope. Country music in 2010 is supposed to be music you can listen to in the car with your kids, not music sung by a guy you wouldn’t even let speak to your kids.
But Jamey Johnson just doesn’t seem to know his place, and once again he delivers a sensational country song, written for adults, that insists on being included in the mainstream conversation.
“Playing The Part,” from Johnson’s upcoming double-disc release The Guitar Song, talks about hard times and refers to alcohol and drug use. It alludes to a lover who we’re left to assume is no longer with the narrator, finds him longing for the Alabama home he left behind, and does not have a happy ending or a silver lining.
But it’s also Johnson’s grooviest, most musically-upbeat record yet. While much of That Lonesome Songwas musically drab, “Playing The Part” has a colorful, full arrangement and a west coast, honky-tonk vibe. Meanwhile, Johnson—who is an effective communicator but only average technical singer—delivers a dynamic, smooth vocal performance.
“Playing The Part” sounds modern and crisp, even though it’s steeped in old-school sensibilities—and that means it’s going to be difficult for country radio to write it off as a product of the genre’s fringe elements. This is certainly no exercise in “Outlaw” aesthetic, nor a demonstration of country music’s past.
This is just an undeniably great country song—one that country fans are going to want to hear.
Refusing to spin “Playing The Part” on country radio would be criminal.
This record is so well put together, in fact, that I expect it to be something of a cross-genre breakthrough hit for Johnson. It’s unlikely to garner much airplay in any format other than country (partially because it sounds so unabashedly country), but it stands to do well within the social circles of music fans who have Willie, Johnny and Gram Parsons in their vinyl collections. This is a cool sounding record, and Jamey Johnson’s a cool guy with a ton of authenticity.
As such, “Playing The Part” should appeal to people who would like to like country music, but who can’t stomach the saccharine sentiments of the format’s typical lyrics and the generic arrangements slapped on by Nashville’s league of big-name producers.
Mainstream fans may simply be shocked at how good country music can be.