It’s 48 hours before the Grammy Awards and minutes from Jamey Johnson’s seventh consecutive sold-out gig on his nationwide tour. The scraggly, red-bearded country singer sips from a coffee jar while sitting at a kitchen table on his tour bus parked on a Chicago side street. CNN is on the tube, his three dogs, Hank, Rosa and Martin, scatter about the cabin and a freshly packed bowl of marijuana rests beside him. Tomorrow night, Johnson will play a casino-gig in Indiana, and the following evening his latest album, Living For A Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran, a collection of songs written by his late friend and country-songwriting icon, which he assembled with help from industry icons like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Merle Haggard and released last October, is up for Country Album of the Year.
The Alabama native, who broke out in 2008 with his no-frills album, That Lonesome Song, then followed it up in 2010 with the unflinching rarirty of a double country-LP, The Guitar Song, finds little satisfaction in such critical recognition. “I just don’t see the value in it,” says Johnson. “People tend to fight like wolverines over things like that.”
In a sit-down with Rolling Stone, during which he pondered every response with careful, steely-eyed deliberation, Johnson opened up on his career, faith and current squabbles with his record label, Mercury Nashville – a disagreement he believes will prevent him from releasing new music anytime soon. “I feel pretty used by the music industry,” he said. “They treat me worse than they ever did the Dixie Chicks.”
You barely made it on time for tonight’s gig. From where were you driving?
Hell, I can’t remember. It was the South.
Such is the touring life. Congratulations on your Grammy nomination for Best Country Album for Living For A Song. Is the competitive part of you pulling for the win?
I don’t want to belittle [the Grammys] at all. The trophies and awards and plaques and everything, they’re really nice for the people that are on my team that work hard. And so, fine, if we get a trophy, y’all hold it up and be proud. We’ve all worked hard and can enjoy it together. But if we don’t get a trophy, I don’t want it to take away from any of those efforts. Those trophies, they’re so useful to other artists that they’re willing to do unscrupulous things to achieve them. I know that people tend to fight like wolverines over things like that, I just don’t see the value in it. You won’t see me out campaigning for one.
Though there must be some sense of accomplishment?
There are so many people that write better songs, that have a better voice, that have a better everything, that will never get their opportunity. If it means something to those people to be able to point at somebody like me and go “well, if he did it I can do it.” And I don’t want to steal anybody’s hope either. I believe everybody should have their opportunity. I guess what I’m saying is I don’t put too much emphasis on the trophy. But if you give me a Grammy, I’m not fixing to go home and throw it away. I’m gonna put it on the shelf with the other ones and dust it off every ten years.
But this is additional confirmation that your music is highly regarded by both industry types and a slew of country-music fans.
It’s good to be loved. It beats the hell out of the alternative. So it’s definitely a positive reinforcement. As positive and as good as it is though, it’s never going to be the purpose.
So what is then? To write meaningful songs and sell albums?
No. It’s even more primal than that. And I use the word “primal” because since the beginning of time there’s been man and there’s been Earth and there’s been God. And as long as man has walked on this Earth, there has been God. And man’s purpose is for the glorification of God. I write because it makes God happy that I write. I sing because it makes God happy that I sing. And if it makes God’s people happy, then all the better. But if it fails to do so, it’s probably my fault. I might have missed a note here or there or got a word wrong or whatever else. But I don’t see me ever making an album just to please the people.
Your Grammy-nominated Hank Cochran tribute album appears to be the ultimate passion project.
It was not planned at all. After Hank passed away, there was a gathering at his house of all of his friends – not all of them – but a few. And by a few I mean it was probably 50 people. And the more everybody got to singing his songs that day, when I sat down on his back porch and Bobby Bare played me a couple of songs – Whitey Shafer played a song here or there – these are songs that mattered. These weren’t songs that should be erased and just float away with the breeze. These were songs that mattered, that mattered to a lot of people. The kinds of songs that stop you in your tracks and go “finally somebody hit the nerve.” It was breathed into the air not by one, but by several people that day that there should be an album. And no quicker than the idea reached the room it was just about brought to fruition. [Producers] Buddy Cannon and Dale Dotson got on top of it immediately, even when I was probably not ready to be in the throes of another album yet, they were all about it.
Did you fear the songs might die if you didn’t reintroduce them to country-music fans?
Well, they live on when we sing ’em. And I’m not the only one singing them. I’m one of many of Hank’s fans. He had a lot of fans out there. He’s got a lot of fans that don’t even know they’re Hank Cochran fans. But when you go looking through his most popular songs, it’s undeniable. We’re all a Hank Cochran fan in one way or another.
The more you play Hank’s songs live, do you develop a greater personal connection to them?
Yah, the song might get better or we might get better at playing it. But the connection was there first. Or we wouldn’t be doing it. The things he sang about are the things that I’ve sang about. They’re the things that people sang about before he started writing. He just wrote them in a different way. He wrote them with a different sound. He wrote them with a different chord progression or whatever. He would sometimes borrow his own melodies and rewrite them songs. One of Hank’s favorite things to tell a young writer, whenever he’d write with him the first time was, ‘”let’s go see if we can make up some new words to these old melodies.”
Sage advice. Why fight a good melody?
That’s right. You can borrow from this one or that one. One of those melodies in particular, when [Cochran] got done [writing] “The Chair,” there’s a progression on the end of “The Chair” that sounds just like [Willie Nelson’s] “Crazy.” And I think him and Willie must have stolen the melody from the same place. I think the story goes, when Willie called him out on borrowing that melody from “Crazy,” Hank went and reminded him of some other song that had that melody in it first. And they both just let it rest and moved on.
Are you writing these days? And more importantly, can we expect any new Jamey Johnson material in the near future?
Well, I wish I could tell you that I am writing. I’m not. I wish I could tell you I’m gonna go home next week and record another album. It’s not likely to happen. I feel pretty used by the music industry, in that my contracts are written in such a way that I don’t get paid. And that makes me wanna quit working for whoever thinks it is that I work for them. But I’ve clearly got a job that I can’t quit.
So what’s your plan?
It’s time for us to regroup and it’s time for us to look at these contracts. The problem is, I don’t trust any of the people that I’ve worked with so far. I believe they’ve all hidden the truth from me or lied to me or deceived me in one way or another. Because the end result is that no matter what they said or did or what they said they did, I didn’t get paid. And if I don’t get paid, then we’ve got no reason to make any more records for those people. That’s not going to keep me from making a record. I look at it like, back in my general contractor days, if you hired me to build you a house and halfway through you quit paying me, I ain’t fixing to finish that house. You can finish it yourself. And you’re not going to keep me from going and building someone else a house because building houses is what I fucking do.
So do you plan to renegotiate your contract?
In Nashville they think because you signed this contract that you owe them the remainder of the terms of the contract. I say, “If you’re not paying me I don’t care what you think I owe you, I don’t owe you squat.”
But that should nullify your contract, no?
In fact I believe it does. I don’t know the law. Like I said, I’m a general contractor. As a musician I never studied music law. I can’t even read the contracts I’ve signed. But I’m fairly sure they don’t say what I thought they said.
Does this mean new music from you in 2013 is unlikely?
We haven’t reached such a gridlock that we can’t continue to do work with them in the future. But we can’t do anything right now until that gets resolved. Financially speaking, they treat me worse than they ever did the Dixie Chicks.