The in­ner out­law of Jamey John­son

Some lyrics by the Alabama singer, who has a dou­ble CD out, trace his path up the coun­try mu­sic charts.

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - Randy Lewis

A de­pressed go­rilla walks into a bar. Likes the band he finds there play­ing to an au­di­ence of two: the bar­tender and one passed-out pa­tron. Dances a happy dance, promptly be­friends the lead singer and ex­its one happy ape.

If that doesn’t sound like much of a punch line, it’s be­cause the sce­nario is no joke — just the whim­si­cal story line for a new mu­sic video be­ing shot in Hollywood last week for coun­try singer Jamey John­son’s forth­com­ing sin­gle “Play­ing the Part.” The bouncy num­ber is one of 25 songs on the Alabama singer and song­writer’s am­bi­tious new dou­ble al­bum, “The Gui­tar Song,” which en­tered Bill­board’s lat­est coun­try al­bums chart at No. 1 and came in at No. 4 on the over­all pop al­bum list­ing.

For the video, John­son hap­pily strummed his gui­tar at one end of the dingy bar near the tony Hollywood and High­land com­plex while one of his fans di­rected the loopy ac­tion for strate­gi­cally placed cam­eras — a fan

John­son,

named Matthew McConaughey.

Two years ago at the Academy of Coun­try Mu­sic Awards cer­e­mony in Las Ve­gas, the Texas ac­tor had flagged down John­son’s pub­li­cist back­stage, beg­ging for an in­tro­duc­tion to the ris­ing coun­try mav­er­ick. They’ve since be­come friends, to the ex­tent that McConaughey’s long­time girl­friend, Brazil­ian model-de­signer Camila Alves, brought John­son and his band in to play for her hus­band’s sur­prise 40th birth­day party last year.

“With a lot of artists,” McConaughey said a cou­ple of days af­ter the video shoot, “their art is one thing, and they’re an­other. [With John­son] there’s no sep­a­ra­tion be­tween his mu­sic and him. Jamey doesn’t per­form, he’s just who he is.”

Ca­reer tra­jec­tory

For John­son, “I don’t think I could have dreamed any­thing bet­ter,” he said with a re­luc­tant smile af­ter the video shoot had wrapped, giv­ing him a few free min­utes to re­lax on a sofa in the tour bus parked in the al­ley next to the bar.

In fact, some of the ma­te­rial on “The Gui­tar Song” traces how much his life has changed in re­cent years, a trans­for­ma­tion that’s turned a strug­gling song­writer whose per­sonal life was fall­ing apart into a award-laden mu­si­cian.

“I never thought I’d get to see the in­side of a li­mou­sine,” he sings in “Cal­i­for­nia Ri­ots,” which he wrote with Lee Thomas Miller. Now, how­ever, he might spend con­sid­er­able time in one, shut­tling from one four-star ho­tel to the other while at­tend­ing to the var­i­ous facets of a still blos­som­ing ca­reer as one of coun­try mu­sic’s new­est stars — a re­al­ity he treats with con­sid­er­able skep­ti­cism.

In “Play­ing the Part,” he marvels at and lam­poons the Hollywood life­style: “Tak­ing a dip on the Sun­set Strip in the morn­ing / Ain’t noth­ing like the smell of tofu and high-dol­lar wine.”

Palling around with Hollywood A-lis­ters like McConaughey may still strike John­son as slightly sur­real, but it hasn’t dis­con­nected him from his ground­ing in the gritty de­tails of work­ing­class re­al­ity that he brings to his mu­sic. And pleased as he is that “The Gui­tar Song” is get­ting such an en­thu­si­as­tic re­sponse from crit­ics and record buy­ers, he hasn’t for­got­ten what life was like be­fore “That Lone­some Song” in­tro­duced him to a broad na­tional au­di­ence.

“How’d the one be­fore that do?” he asked, re­fer­ring to his 2005 de­but al­bum, “The Dol­lar,” whose heart­tug­ging ti­tle track made it to No. 14 on Bill­board’s coun­try sin­gles chart. But af­ter a fol­low-up sin­gle fiz­zled, his la­bel cut him loose.

“My fans don’t [care] which record is which,” said John­son, who is play­ing the House of Blues in West Hollywood on Tues­day. His wild, dark brown hair flows well past his shoul­ders, and a scrag­gly beard gives the beefy mu­si­cian the look of a lost mem­ber of ZZ Top or Lynyrd Skynyrd. “They’ve been fol­low­ing us from the be­gin­ning, and they’ll fol­low us till the end. They don’t dif­fer­en­ti­ate by al­bum based on how they do chart-wise. They’re not look­ing for any mea­sure of [com­mer­cial] suc­cess. And nei­ther am I…. That works out real well for both of us, don’t it?”

New con­tract

He’s get­ting no ar­gu­ment from Uni­ver­sal Mu­sic Group exec Luke Lewis, who signed John­son to Uni­ver­sal’s Mer­cury Nashville di­vi­sion af­ter the singer’s In­ter­net-only ver­sion of “That Lone­some Song” got tongues in Mu­sic City wag­ging about him.

His stock rose fur­ther af­ter Ge­orge Strait recorded “Give It Away,” a song John­son wrote with vet­eran singer and song­writ­ers Bill An­der­son and Buddy Can­non that gave Strait his 41st No. 1 hit.

Yet John­son was still with­out a con­tract when he and his band, the Kent Hardly Play­boys, be­gan record­ing the ma­te­rial that ended up on “That Lone­some Song.” He re­jected a cou­ple of of­fers from la­bels that wanted him to rere­cord what he’d done be­fore Lewis ap­proached him.

“When Luke told me not to mess with that sound, I re­peated to him im­me­di­ately: ‘Hell, I came here to tell you that.’ We en­joy what we do. Me and the band, we en­joy mak­ing mu­sic the way we make mu­sic to­day. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t bother do­ing any of it. There’s noth­ing else worth both­er­ing with.”

Lewis, who also runs the bou­tique Lost High­way la­bel that has re­leased crit­i­cally ac­claimed al­bums by Lucinda Wil­liams, Ryan Bing­ham, Ryan Adams and many oth­ers, said, “I’m a be­liever in artis­tic free­dom. I just try to fig­ure out ways to get this stuff into the mar­ket­place that makes sense.”

In John­son, Lewis saw “an in­cred­i­bly pro­lific artist, one who is still show­ing no sign of slow­ing down.”

John­son lob­bied to put out two CDs’ worth of new mu­sic for “those who get what we do,” which is to write about real peo­ple grap­pling with real is­sues and to sing them in a col­or­fully evoca­tive voice that’s of­ten been com­pared to that of Way­lon Jen­nings. John­son also shares the fierce in­de­pen­dence that Jen­nings, Wil­lie Nel­son and their coun­try out­law brethren ex­hib­ited in the ’70s.

“I sub­scribe to a fa­mous quote from Wil­lie Nel­son: ‘We’re go­ing to keep do­ing it wrong till we like it that way,’ ” John­son said. “We hardly ever do things the way ev­ery­body else says they should be done. And that al­most works out bet­ter for me, be­cause I don’t re­ally [care] how they’ve al­ways been done. If you want us to do it, here’s how we do it.”

James Minchin

RID­ING IN STYLE NOW: “I never thought I’d get to see the in­side of a li­mou­sine,” the Alabama-born John­son sings in “Cal­i­for­nia Ri­ots.”

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