Despite special guest appearances by Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Brooks & Dunn’s Ronnie Dunn, many fans left last night’s sold-out Jamey Johnson concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium disappointed, some even infuriated, when the house lights flickered on a mere 70 minutes after they dimmed.
“You can’t do this to people!” protested one angry fan, who had made a two-hour drive from Kentucky and dropped $60 a ticket to see his 10th Jamey Johnson show (he said they usually clock in at over two hours). “He ain’t makin’ any fans right now,” said the man’s equally irate companion.
The succinct set ended, without an encore, before 9 p.m. and included no selections from Johnson’s 2008 breakthrough That Lonesome Song or its double-LP follow-up The Guitar Song, or any of the singer’s original songs, for that matter. The shaggy trad-country crooner opted instead to focus solely on selections from Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran – a duets tribute album to the late, legendary singer-songwriter who penned hits for Patsy Cline, Merle Haggard, George Strait and others that hit shelves yesterday.
Living for a Song boasts a roster of heavyweight duet partners including Elvis Costello, Kris Kristofferson and Leon Russell. Contributors Krauss, Dunn, Harris and Nelson were on hand last night to help Johnson bring the album to the stage, turning in a show that emphasized quality over quantity.
Krauss helped kick off the festivities, joining Johnson and his eight-piece band on opening renditions of “Make the World Go Away” – a Ray Price cut that was a Top-40 hit for Timi Yuro, Eddy Arnold and Donny and Marie Osmond – and “I Fall to Pieces,” a hit for Patsy Cline that Merle Haggard sings on Living. Dunn followed, joining Johnson for a take on the literal jukebox gem “A-11,” originally made famous by Buck Owens. Next up was Emmylou Harris, who sang the part of Cochran’s one-time wife Jeannie Seely on a divine version of Seely’s “Don’t Touch Me.”
Johnson is a man of few words and even less stage banter. So, with a voice like a soothing sonic Quaalude to the ears, famed WSM radio DJ and Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs emceed the event.
Johnson isn’t much for interacting with his duet partners, either – he’s a strong, stone-faced, stoic performer, casually clad in jeans, a plain black T-shirt and a security blanket of unkempt facial hair. When unaccompanied, the guitar-wielding singer spent most of the hour crooning one sad-bastard Cochran weeper after another, in a baritone that boomed across the auditorium like the bellow of a heartbroken, spiritually bereft god.
While standouts like “Love Makes a Fool of Us All” and “He’s Got You” ratcheted up emotions and mostly met with pin-drop attentiveness, it was clear that some more vocal and unruly folks in attendance had come to the show expecting to hear Johnson hits like “In Color” and “The Dollar,” or at least something a little bit more honky-tonkin’ than tear-in-beer ballads. That all changed when Stubbs called Willie Nelson to the stage, instantly cuing a standing ovation.
In fine voice and looking, well, like Willie Nelson, the country legend stole the show, leading the band through five songs, calling out audibles like the wistful shuffle “Everything But You” and a majestic “Don’t You Ever Get Tired (Of Hurting Me)” as he swiftly relegated Johnson from frontman to sideman. Nelson didn’t hog the spotlight, however. The pair harmonized like a couple of hobos on a hitched locomotive as they traded verses and tangled lines on a perfectly janky run through Living‘s title track.
Before leaving the stage, Nelson delighted the hall with his signature song, and the only non-Cochran number of the night: “On the Road Again.” The crowd rose to its feet, sang and clapped along, and Johnson even came close to cracking a smile as he took a verse, living out every aspiring outlaw country troubadour’s boyhood fantasy. Unfortunately for soon-to-be-baffled-and-angered attendees, the show ended soon after. “Bullshit!” a concertgoer or two cried out as the roadies drew the stage curtain shut.
Cochran “got Willie his first publishing deal,” Johnson keyboardist Jim “Moose” Brown told Rolling Stone after the show. “Hank was really special to all of the people on stage . . . so this night was all about him,” he said, explaining why Johnson jettisoned his own material at the risk of ruffling a few fans’ feathers. “Jamey’s always the kind of guy that doesn’t let any of that stuff influence him. He does whatever he feels, and I think that’s what has put him where he is today.”