Songs about hard living aren't unusual in country music, but the living doesn't often get as hard as it does in Jamey Johnson's "High Cost of Living." The explicit cautionary tale was a minor radio hit last year, breaking into the notoriously conservative country top 40 despite a passage near the end about trading in a nice, quiet family life "for cocaine and a whore." It's one of several bracing moments in the song, which also includes pot-smoking in the Baptist church parking lot, three-day binges, alcoholic black-outs, and a drug bust in a seedy motel room.
Over the last couple of years, Johnson, 34, has become one of the most talked-about young singers in Nashville for his frank, often autobiographical lyrics and his embrace of the traditions of the outlaw movement of the 1970s. Along with Miranda Lambert, Zac Brown, Lady Antebellum, Sugarland, and James Otto, he's leading a post-Big & Rich youth movement in mainstream country music. Even among those fresh voices, though, Johnson stands out, for his nearly bottomless baritone, which alternately recalls Waylon Jennings and George Jones, and for his songwriting, which updates hardbitten country for the 21st century. He's a traditionalist who's not bound to the past—one of his first songwriting credits in Nashville was for Trace Adkins' "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk," and when he was dropped by Sony after his first album, The Dollar, in 2006, he released his next album himself on the Internet.
"I went in the studio and wrote a check out of my pocket to get that album done," Johnson says of 2008's That Lonesome Song. "The only label I talked to wanted to change this or that, and I didn't want to work with a label like that. So I chose not to do anything with them at all."
That Lonesome Song, an unusually coherent and generally dark country album written in the wake of Johnson's 2006 divorce, was quickly picked up by Mercury and reissued, producing "High Cost of Living" and the top-10 hit "In Color." It also includes a semi-novelty song, "Between Jennings and Jones," built around the spot where his CDs are filed in a music store shelf, and "Mowing Down the Roses," a halfway homage to George Jones' riding-mower DUI.
The album sold well—it's been certified gold—but it didn't exactly make Johnson a Nashville superstar. Much of his acclaim has come outside country music circles, and his reputation as a songwriter rests more with industry insiders than the radio audience. He's an album artist, and country music is a singles format.
That hasn't affected how he's writing the songs for his new album, due out this summer, or maybe a little sooner. If That Lonesome Song is more cohesive than most mainstream country albums, the new one's even more ambitious.
"It's kind of a concept album," Johnson says. "We've got two albums fused together into one concept, kind of a black album and a white album. The black album follows a guy who starts on a path that gets bleaker and bleaker, and he gets more and more lost until he reaches the darkest day. Then everything gets better and better on the white album, and he finds some truth and purpose in life."
Johnson released an advance single from the new album last year, a piano power ballad called "My Way to You" that stalled on the charts. He's not worried about making hits, though, and he sees getting and losing recording deals as just part of the business.
"If I spent one minute thinking about that shit I'd go crazy," Johnson says. "‘Hit' is what you call a song after it's been successful. You can't sit down and try to write one. It's not that I don't care about that kind of thing. But why should I spend any time trying to appease some guy at a radio station? If he's going to play a song, he's going to play it. If he's not, he's not."