It’s one thing to name-drop the late, great Waylon Jennings in a song. It’s quite another to tool around Nashville in Jennings’ car. Jamey Johnson does both. “It’s a ’99, the last year they made an Eldorado,” Johnson says, sitting in the Nashville recording studio where he is finishing work on a new album slated for release sometime this summer. Johnson, who bought the car from the manager of Jennings’ estate, is especially fond of its tires, with their garish yellow stripes and gleaming chrome rims. “Kid Rock once told me he had some urban name for them tires,” Johnson says with a laugh. “He thought it was kinda pimp that I rolled up with those rims on that car.”
If anyone deserves to inherit Jennings’ mantle as country’s badass, it’s the 34-year-old Johnson. A former corporal in the Marine Reserve, Johnson toiled for years on Nashville’s fringes, playing in dive bars and eventually finding success on the Music Row songwriting circuit. His break came when he co-wrote Trace Adkins’ booty-licious 2005 hit “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.” Johnson then released a flop solo debut before his 2008 record, That Lonesome Song, catapulted him to stardom. A slew of accolades and awards have followed.
That Lonesome Song is packed with hard-bitten tales of drugs, depression and divorce, delivered in a thick ‘Bama drawl over rugged honky-tonk backing. “When we put Lonesome out, I worried about the road that my daughter would be traveling down when she listens to her daddy’s music,” Johnson says. His daughter, age six, plays in the lounge area just outside the studio. She lives in Nashville with Johnson’s ex but frequently hangs out while her dad records: “I talked to my ex-wife about it. I made the decision that, whether it’s right or wrong for her now, eventually she’s gonna grow up and listen, and I want her to get the truth.”
He asks an engineer to cue up some songs from his new record, tentatively titled The Guitar Song. It’s a 24-song double album divided into halves: a ferociously grim “black album” and a more upbeat “white album.”
“The black one goes down a path of self-destruction; the white one goes down a path of self-redemption,” Johnson says. The Guitar Song looks back to Johnson’s early days in Nashville, when he worked construction by day and honed his craft playing honky-tonks at night. “It’s basically the story of being a honky-tonk singer,” he says. “It ain’t all pretty, and it ain’t all fun. But it’s definitely livin’ life about as hard as you can live it.”
These days Johnson doesn’t live quite as hard, although he cops to a weakness for Jack Daniel’s, and he still likes to keep party-animal hours. “I usually go to sleep about five or six in the morning. ‘Insomniac’ would be a good name for it — I can stay up for three damn days, no problem.”
The new album takes in a range of styles: stark acoustic blues, soul-style ballads awash in Hammond B3 organ, a scathing satire about L.A. (which Johnson wrote “after I did some bullshit TV show”). The title track is an ambling novelty song: two guitars talking in a pawn shop. And then there’s “Macon,” a lusty come-on laced with Lynyrd Skynyrd-style guitar licks. Johnson smiles: “If you’re gonna write a song about fuckin’, and it’s gonna be set in south Georgia, it can only sound one way.”