Living for a Song is a tribute album honoring the great country songwriter Hank Cochran, and features perhaps the most impressive list of vocalists ever assembled for such a recording: Alison Krauss, Merle Haggard, Leon Russell, Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Ray Price, Elvis Costello, George Strait, Ronnie Dunn, Bobby Bare, Willie Nelson, Lee Ann Womack, and Kris Kristofferson. To attract such luminaries, you'd expect them to be collaborating with Johnny Cash's hologram. But they're not; they've been drawn to the project not only by Cochran's sterling tracks, but by the man who endeavored to cut the record. And that man is Jamey Johnson.
While Johnson's toured with Kid Rock, he's not a household name outside of country and critical circles. He's not exactly a household name of the CMT Top 20 variety either, but rather the outsider whom insiders love to love. And it's hard to think of a more ridiculously generous outpouring of love than on Johnson's Cochran tribute. With this, one senses Johnson has reached a rarefied stature in entertainment: that of the auteur so highly regarded that he can indulge his furthest-flung eccentricities and folks will flock for fear of missing out on his genius-rays. This explains why Woody Allen has consistently attracted A-List casts to his famously tight-lipped sets even while mired in a three-film slump.
Johnson wears his hair and beard long and nappy, and has often sung of his predilection toward crippling intoxicants, although he's tapered his intake mightily in recent years (which he's also sung about). He's most often lumped in with country outlaws like Haggard, Billy Joe Shaver and Waylon Jennings--Johnson drives an Eldorado once owned by Jennings--and his grave-deep voice certainly fits the role. But there was a time--leading up to and including his 2006 major-label debut, The Dollar--when Johnson seemed pointed on a more mainstream path to success.
Johnson was a southern frat boy who then served in the Marines, thus giving him the perfect biography for a red-state rise. On The Dollar's cover, he's shown smiling, with a light cowboy hat atop his head and neatly trimmed follicles. While artistically The Dollar harkens back to more traditional country (a duet with George Jones drives this notion home), it also includes a few "Truck Yeah"-caliber howlers, like "Ray Ray's Juke Joint," that probably cause Johnson's ears to bleed nowadays. (The putrid "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk," which Johnson wrote for his vocal doppelganger Trace Adkins, should elicit a similar reaction.)
For playing it straight, Johnson was rewarded by getting dumped from his label. Johnson then set to penning chart-toppers for the likes of Adkins and Strait while self-releasing some tracks of his own. Those caught the attention of Universal, which in 2008 released Johnson's Lonesome Song to widespread acclaim both inside and outside Music City power circles.
Having taken a detour on the path to mainstream country acceptance, Johnson could have easily cut his hair and thrown the hat back on without fear of repeat rejection. Instead, he doubled down on a double album called The Guitar Song that ranks among the most ambitious and satisfying country releases in recent memory.
These days, Johnson is impossible to pigeonhole. He doesn't spend much time shooting people in bars, so the outlaw shoe doesn't quite fit, and he's not Strait and narrow enough to take the traditionalist baton from the Georges. Rather, like Costello or Jack White, he's left to just be Jamey, doing whatever he pleases artistically with virtual assurance that his work will be embraced. Money aside, that's about all an artist of any discipline can hope for.