Country music has a Mr. Nice Guy problem: There are too many of them. Consider the country A-list: Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, George Strait, Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley. They all make fine records. (Jackson and Paisley make great ones.) But although these stars are superficially different—Jackson is a laid-back good ol' boy, Paisley a jester, Chesney a beach bum—they're all variations on a single type: the solid, earthy man's man, a bit rough around the edges, prone to moral lapses when he knocks back one too many, but ultimately genial and upstanding, dedicated to God and family and Old Glory and pickup trucks and fishing rods, not necessarily in that order. Peek under every big hat in Nashville, and you'll find a big lunk with a bigger heart.
Jamey Johnson has a 10-gallon Stetson of his own—but the similarities end there. Johnson, a 32-year-old former Marine from Alabama, is not a nice guy. He's a bit of a creep. He wears a permanent scowl and has a droopy goatee that looks like it might house a colony of fire ants. In other words, he's an heir to the outlaw country tradition of Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson and, of course, Johnny Cash. Except that Johnson is bleaker and blacker than the Man in Black. On his new album, That Lonesome Song, Johnson sings in the voice of a drug addict, a depressive, and, occasionally, a sociopath. In "Mowin' Down the Roses," Johnson returns to the house he shared with his ex to set fire to her clothes and steer a power mower through her flowerbeds. "Down in Mississippi, it's getting perfectly clear/ That anything you used to love just ain't gon' grow 'round here," he sings. The archetypal country outlaw is an endearing rapscallion. Jamey Johnson is a walking, talking blight on this land.
He's also made one of the year's best albums. It begins with the sound of a clanging jailhouse doors and segues quickly to a prison of another kind. "High Cost of Living" is a bleak, almost journalistic account of a life undone by drugs. Johnson sings:
My whole life went through my head
Layin' in that motel bed
Watchin' as the cops kicked in the door
I had a job and a piece of land
My sweet wife was my best friend
But I traded that for cocaine and a whore
Johnson drawls these lines over a sturdy country-rock backing, accented by organ and a pedal steel guitar. It's a retro sound, which is the way Johnson likes it. He performs his ballads in waltz time, covers two songs popularized by Waylon Jennings, and genuflects at the altar of Jennings and George Jones in a clever tribute song.
The honky-tonk traditionalism extends to Johnson's subject matter. That Lonesome Song is a heartbreak album, written by Johnson (and some skilled collaborators) in the annus horribilis the followed the tanking of his 2006 major label debut and a nasty marriage bust-up. The tempos are slow, the sound brooding, the scenery familiar from a thousand country ballads: bedrooms, bars, desolate highway strips, divorce court. But Johnson breathes life into these clichés by relishing the gory details. "What the hell did I do last night?/ That's the story of my life," he confesses in the title track. Johnson sings in a sullen drawl, almost mumbling at times: the voice of a man too stupefied by his loss, and too numbed by his hangover, to raise his voice or to wallow. He lets the pedal steel do the weeping—he just recites the facts.
Johnson has been knocking around Nashville for several years, co-writing big hits for Strait (the chart-topper "Give It Away") and Trace Adkins (the bootylicious novelty smash "Honky-Tonk Badonkadonk"). He's a craftsman of a high order with a knack for disrupting generic chord progressions with harmonic twists and a gift for the wordplay that country fans love. ("The high cost of living/ Ain't nothing like the cost of living high.") He can do schmaltz: In 2006, he had a minor hit with a shamelessly tear-jerking "The Dollar," and the first single from That Lonesome Song, "In Color," is a weeper about leafing through old photo albums.
But in general, That Lonesome Song is fearsomely anti-sentimental, an anomaly in a genre that serves up even the grimmest tales in gauzy soft focus. In song after song, Johnson revels in gloominess, offering neither happy endings nor easy catharsis. The fine tunes, the vivid storytelling, and Johnson's rugged croak make for compelling listening, but he refuses to ingratiate—he's not trying to win a popularity contest or a headlining spot at Fan Fair. The closest he comes to cornpone is "Stars in Alabama," a lovely, old-fashioned home-and-hearth song in which a mother pleads with her troubadour son to cancel his next gig and come back to Montgomery for a visit. Country's chart-topping Mr. Nice Guys would surely have ended the song with an emotional money shot: throwing the tour bus into reverse and heading straight to sweet home Alabama, into momma's waiting arms. But Johnson keeps rolling toward Tennessee.