Jamey Johnson Previews Surprise Christmas EP and Reveals New Indie Direction

The singer-songwriter opens up about his new holiday release, the label he's launching and why he credits 'Christmas Vacation' with helping him discover some classic music

By
Jamey Johnson

For a while now, every last fan or journalist who has spoken with Jamey Johnson has wanted to know the same thing: When is he going to put out new music? It's been two years since he gave now-Country Music Hall of Fame songwriter Hank Cochran's work a deeply dignified, deeply felt, guest-aided studio treatment on the tribute album Living for a Song, and four since Johnson stocked the double album The Guitar Song with material that added up to a gnarled, knotty, yet elegantly crafted portrait of human resolve. It was honky-tonk as high art from a one-in-a-generation talent.

And then there was silence, the Alabama-born singer-songwriter mired in business contracts he found untenable.

A month or more ago, a large banner appeared on Johnson's website bearing four cryptic but promising words: "New Music Coming Soon." Word spread around the blogosphere last week that that new music would take the form of a holiday EP titled The Christmas Song — perhaps not the sort of project folks were expecting from the artist behind two of the darkest country albums this century, The Guitar Song and its predecessor, That Lonesome Song.

Give a listen, though — the EP is available on iTunes — and you find that a collection of Christmas standards in the gingerly swinging Frank Sinatra/Nat King Cole/Bing Crosby vein makes good musical sense coming from Johnson. He's so accomplished at inhabiting steely roles that it's easy to forget how deftly he can deliver more tender sentiments; how nimble a song interpreter he is; what a responsive band he employs.

There's this, too: the EP contains the waltz-time "South Alabam Christmas," the first new Jamey Johnson composition to see the light of day since his 2010 double set — and certainly the first ever to feature a mini-solo from him on flugelhorn.

As it turns out, The Christmas Song isn't the only new music Johnson has in the works. It's simply the first release on his newly launched, independent label Big Gassed Records, which will allow him to write what he wants, produce who he wants and get it out when he wants. Johnson called Rolling Stone Country from the combination office and studio he leases in the historic, recently sold and soon-to-be-purchased-by-preservationists RCA Building on Music Row to expound upon the news.

Courtesy Big Gassed Records

What do you have in the works, and how does this Christmas EP fit in?
It's Christmas music. And maybe I didn't get it out there as early as I should have. I think we might've missed the window to bring it to retail. If so, then we'll just be selling them off the website, or using a couple of online sales points.

As far as the label, I've kind of always wanted to do my own label. When we released That Lonesome Song on the Internet, we turned around and got a label deal offered to us by one of the majors, and decided we'd do a deal with Mercury. I feel like I've worn out my welcome over there... might've stayed a little longer than I anticipated. But this is gonna be fun. It's gonna be a lot of work, but it's gonna be fun work.

To answer the question that the fans have been asking: "When are we gonna put out new music?" Now. We're gonna start putting it out now, starting with this Christmas EP. And then you can look for another release from me after the start of the year. And you can look for more releases from me as the year progresses. We don't have to go through the same waiting process that other artists might have to, stand in line and wait to get their music out. We'll just kind of fall in line where we fit for retail — and if we don't fit there, we don't fit there. It's not a problem to me.

What I'm looking to do is supply my music to my fans. That way we don't have to keep 'em waiting four years for another album. We don't have to figure out where we can slide in, in the line. We just do it.

What else do you envision this independent move to enable you to do?
I'm also gonna be looking around my own network of friends that write and record. There's several of them that I can't believe they're not actively making music. And it's because they don't have the right opportunity.

My label's not gonna be one of those "gotcha" labels, where as soon as you come in the door, we're gonna ask you for a percentage of every single way you make music or money. I don't want any long-term relationships with somebody that wants to get free and go loose, go do their own thing. That's not what I'm looking for. I'm looking to help people if I can, and get [them] started on their own terms — not make a quick buck off of 'em. And I'm certainly not opening up my door to where I'm gonna be losing money either. Mama didn't raise no fool.

So it's appealing to you as a songwriter, impatient to get your songs out there, that you won't have to wait until you have enough songs for an entire album.
An album doesn't know a number of songs. A good album doesn't have to have the right number of songs. It has to have the right songs. If we have five or six, but we don't have 10 or 12, then yeah, I could see putting out the five or six that we have.… But if I'm gonna make an album, and I want it to be an hour or an hour and a half or whatever time length it takes to tell the story, I want to be able to do that without having to ask permission. And now I can.

I think my fans have grown accustomed to that idea over the years: We're gonna make a great album. I'm gonna go in and make the best album I can possibly make and give them what they're looking to get out of it. They want an hour's worth of music that's gonna take 'em somewhere else, and that's what I hope I tend to deliver.

Your albums are cohesive works, not random collections of songs that happened to be written around the same time.
One of those artists I was talking about that she doesn't already have a deal, or already have an album in the works, is Lily Meola. I heard her for the first time on Willie Nelson's record To All the Girls, and she blew me away. Since then, she and I have done a couple of live performances. And she always knocks 'em out live. She's even better on stage than she is in the studio, and that's saying something. She flew into Garland, Texas, to record 'Baby, It's Cold Outside," and we recorded it in the same studio where Willie recorded the Red Headed Stranger record.… So it was really cool to get to do that song in that magical place. There's something about a studio that has that kind of history that sends the chills up your spine and makes you perform out a little bit. We also did [the Willie Nelson-penned Christmas song] "Pretty Paper" in the same studio.

We got to do a duet with the Secret Sisters on "Mele Kalikimaka." The first time I heard that song, it was in that movie Chevy Chase did, the [National Lampoon's] Christmas Vacation movie, where Clark [Griswold] is lookin' out the window, dreaming about the pool he's planning on putting in. You get a gal in a red bikini, and it turns into cousin Eddie.

That song had been around for at least a generation by then.
Yeah, Bing Crosby did that song with the Andrews Sisters, and I was proud to get to do it with the Secret Sisters. I've always been a big fan of theirs, ever since the first time [producer] Dave Cobb introduced us.

You've shared a producer with the Secret Sisters, and you share a home state.
I'm looking forward to doing even more work with them as we go.

I also sat down the morning of the session and wrote one with Buddy Cannon and Bill Anderson called "South Alabam Christmas." That morning, I also bought a flugelhorn. I've never played a flugelhorn, but that didn't stop me from breakin' it out and trying my hand at a solo on that song.

My sisters have already chimed in and told me they're proud of ["South Alabam Christmas"]. It takes them back to the trailer we grew up in, so I'm proud of that.

Buddy Cannon and Bill Anderson are writers you've written with quite a bit over the years. The three of you wrote George Strait's "Give It Away" together.
We also recorded "The Christmas Song" [for this EP]. "The Christmas Song" is important to me because Nat King Cole [who recorded one of the best-known versions] was born in Montgomery [Alabama]. But it's also one of the most beautiful and well-written songs I've ever heard, let alone Christmas songs. There's a lot of great Christmas songs, but there's only one that earned the distinction of being called "The Christmas Song." Written by Mel Torme, and Nat King Cole performed it — to me, it doesn't get any better than that. I've always loved to hear artists, if I love their voice and love their style, I kind of want to hear their take on it. Everybody has a different one. Here's mine.

Except for the original, these Christmas songs have been around half a century or more. You gave them crisp Countrypolitan production. And there's a vintage look to the EP's cover art. It takes the listener back to an earlier era of Christmas albums.
If the sound was done by design, then it was designed probably a decade ago or more. Because the only guys that came in to work on that, other than [harmonica player] Mickey Raphael, it's my road band that I've been traveling with the past several years. That is our sound. We're proud of it. We went out there and did all those shows. We made records before, and we'll make a ton more records before this is all over with. They're not just my band — they're my family. My family recognizes them as family. Hell, my bass player's in here right now putting stickers on CDs.

When work first spread that you were releasing a Christmas EP, one of the most common responses was that it was unexpected, that it wasn't necessarily the sort of material people would expect you do to. On the other hand, you're exactly the kind of country singer that can deliver a Christmas standard with relaxed, jazzy finesse, like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard have. What suited you as a singer about this idea and these particular songs?
Stylistically, I'm not gonna take a Frank Sinatra song and see if I can make it sound more honky-tonk and less Frank Sinatra. I have a great respect for the things that he did, just like Nat King Cole. You know, we can only do it our way. That's it. That doesn't mean I have to try to overdo it. It doesn't mean I have to try to make the song something it wasn't intended to be. I'm happy just using my own voice and using my own guitar player, his tone, my own piano player, and his sound. We're content not trying to overdo it.

The style of music we picked for the record is decidedly more jazz, maybe less country than what we've done. But my friend [music business executive] Tom Baldrica told me the other day, every time I open my mouth, it's country. It doesn't matter what style the song is. That's how it's gonna come out. And I tend to agree with that.

That's the same way I feel about my heroes, Willie Nelson and George Strait. Every time they do something, to me, it's country now. It doesn't matter to me if George Strait goes out and records an entire album of Frank Sinatra standards. Those old Forties and Fifties standards that he might record, they come out fresh and just as country as anything else that George has done. And that's not that George makes everything hokey or anything like that. He's George Strait. Every time he sings, to me, that's the definition of country music. And the same with Willie Nelson. So he plays in the old style of [gypsy jazz guitarist] Django Reinhardt; but when you listen to Django play and you listen to Willie play the same song, Willie's is modern. It's fresh. It's always cutting edge to me.

That's what I aspire to do. I can take an old song and by the time we get done with it in the studio, it's a new-old song, hopefully.

You mentioned you recorded two songs in Texas. Where did you record the rest?
All of the tracks were recorded in [RCA] Studio A. Which we have good reason to be down there recording; now it's more about celebration [of the] salvation of the old studio. I'm proud of how everything unfolded that allowed us to record there. Hopefully we'll get to enjoy it for years to come. We'll see what happens with the new press releases in the days to come. But after the start of the year, we should have more information and kinda know where our old studio is headed. I hope it's headed in the right direction.

It's a great place to record still, and it always will be if we look after it. It would be just as much a shame to let that old studio get torn down as it would've been to let the Ryman get torn down in the Seventies after the Opry moved to its new location. We have a strong team of people that are inside this building right here, actively looking to preserve it.

Every time I sit in my own studio, I think of how many careers started in this very room that I'm sitting in right now when I talk to you. There's people that sat here with their hearts pounding, wondering if Chet Atkins was gonna sign them to the label, or if [label executive] Joe Galante was gonna sign them to the label. Jerry Bradley used to make the same kind of decisions in this room.

That's what we want happening in here today. I want the new kids to gravitate towards this building when they get to town, and learn what the music business is all about and not have to go out there not knowing. Hopefully we can teach our youngsters the ways that it's supposed to be done, so they can avoid some of the pitfalls and the traps, and not have to suffer through the same kinds of things that I did. I had some good educators and I had some good mentors, and still managed to step in a few traps myself. Hopefully I can add my little bit of experience… and maybe we can help some people out. That's what we're here for.

You have more than a little experience being in business situations that are working or that are constricting. That's plenty to pass on.
That's the whole idea behind starting the label, too. One, it gives me an outlet to be able to release my own music to my own fans. But that's what I want to be able to do for another artist. I wish somebody had done that for me when I started off. Maybe I'd be a little farther along than I am. But I'm kinda glad it all worked out the way that it did.

x