Jamey Johnson’s fourth album opens in a bar, the singer talking to a workingman. When Johnson offers him a drink, the guy orders a double, then puts the singer’s problems in perspective. “It may be lonely at the top,” he says, “but it’s a bitch at the bottom.”
Johnson’s 2008 breakthrough, That Lonesome Song, established him as an heir to “outlaws” like Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. The Guitar Song aims even higher, with 25 tracks that take the pulse of a country hitting the skids and a country singer hitting the big time. The first disc is called the “Black Album,” and black it is — like coal dust. “These are sad times/World-gone-mad times,” croons Johnson on “Even the Skies Are Blue.” On “Heartache,” he sings from the point of view of country music’s defining emotion. As a storyteller, Johnson is not short on ambition.
Musically, Johnson is happy to mess with tradition. “By the Seat of Your Pants,” from the more upbeat “White Album,” rides a funky Stevie Wonder-style keyboard riff, and there’s honky-tonk jamming throughout the album. Johnson isn’t trying to appeal to everyone. “California Riots” is Johnson’s “Okie From Muskogee,” a statement of Southern allegiance that imagines an unspecified Golden State uprising: gays vs. fundamentalists, legal-weed fans vs. teetotalers — who knows? It’s a bit reactionary. But like the entire set, it rings true to one man’s unshakable vision.