Want to know what’s wrong with country music?
I suppose you do, since you went ahead and read the second sentence.
Here it is: I have to fill out a contact form before I can do an interview with Jamey Johnson.
I’m sure that’s not a bad thing. I’d have to fill out a form to carry a handgun or add a wing to the house or dump sewage into the Warrior River. In a time of high unemployment, it’s almost patriotic to generate paperwork for filing and dispersal by qualified personnel.
However, filling out a form for the privilege of publicizing a singer of country music strikes me as excessive, especially since I’m the one obliged to do the filling.
I’ve been jawing on the record with music makers of varying competencies for 40 years or so, and the closest I’ve come to this sort of bottleneck was being stood up for an interview with Axl Rose, who, in fairness, may not have been lucid enough for dialogue at the time anyway.
Obtaining a permission slip to interview a country music singer is almost antithetical to the genre. Country seemed always the most democratic of the musics, perhaps in part because so many of its performers considered themselves still part of the audience.
Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, among the first superstars of country, were readily accessible to their fans, many of which journeyed to visit them in their hometowns. What we might call today stalking was considered then homage.
The Country Music Association tried to put some form to this fealty in 1972 with the establishment of Fan Fair, a weeklong Nashville event that put thousands of music lovers face to face with their favorite pickers and grinners. It generated some terrific PR for the music, along with some astonishing tales about the stars. (A Garth Brooks autograph session in 1996 lasted 23 hours and 15 minutes without a break.)
By 2003, though, the words “Fan Fair” had become a little too cheesy for the CMA, which wanted to move country away from its rural roots into the mainstream. It cut the event down to a weekend and changed the name to the CMA Music Festival. That rankled an elder statesman of country music writing, Chet Flippo, who observed in his “Nashville Skyline” column, “It’s increasingly evident that country music’s institutions are being removed from the musical arena by corporate pressure and by absentee landlords….Nobody’s in the country music business anymore. Everybody’s in marketing now.”
The marketing clearly paid off, and what passes for country music nowadays unabashedly resembles a kind of generic pop music, a strange land in which Darius Rucker’s 20th century Hootie and the Blowfish vibe transmutes to 21st century country. Never mind that legends such as George Jones and Loretta Lynn are inaudible to modern country fans, for even a modern hit maker like Vince Gill can’t get a label deal. “In some sense,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last month, “I have been shown the door.”
Country was once a music of loyalty, on both sides of the transaction of listening. Now it’s difficult for an artist to put together two hits in a row, let alone find an audience base or make a career. Country music used to be unafraid of facing life’s tough issues; now every other song seems to be about loving a truck. Country music used to matter. Now, not so much.
That’s why I’m going to suggest that you go see Jamey Johnson perform in Tuscaloosa Saturday night. Maybe you can’t talk to him without filling out forms, but, for the price of a ticket to his show, you can hear the way 21st century country should be sung.
Johnson was born in Enterprise 37 years ago and raised near Hank Williams’s old stomping grounds in Montgomery. The story has it that, when he was a teen, drinking and playing the old master’s songs with his friends at Oak Hill Cemetery, he accidentally dropped his guitar and dinged it on Hank’s tombstone.
The aspiring songwriter drifted up to Nashville in 2000 and put in a tour of duty on nowhere jobs by day and making musical rounds by night. Johnson finally scored a hit by co-writing the 2005 Trace Adkins crapola classic, “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” but he didn’t get his own record out until 2006.
Johnson broke out the next year with That Lonesome Song, but he made his mark in 2010 with his fourth effort, an audacious double CD, The Guitar Song. Dividing it into a “black album” and a “white album,” Johnson summoned up old Nashville with covers of songs by Mel Tillis, Vern Gosdin and Kris Kristofferson, then augmented that with his own compositions evoking the soulful verities of classic country music. There was something for everyone on this set: a little gospel, a few heartache ballads, some outlaw country and some old-school recitation with which Luke the Drifter would have been comfortable.
What holds Jamey Johnson’s work together is his throwback baritone voice, strong as boiled coffee and sharp as rabbit tobacco. It is a voice of authority, much like that of Merle Haggard, with whom Johnson will share the bill at the Tuscaloosa Amphitheatre. With Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills and Lefty Frizzell as his touchstones, The Hag has put his own indelible mark on country with too many hits to name in this small space. Much like Bob Dylan, with whom he has toured before, Haggard has surrendered much of his power to advancing years (he is 75), but if you’ve never seen him perform, and you claim to like country music, then you need to watch the man work at least once.
Merle Haggard and Jamey Johnson, the past and the future of country music, together on one stage. Not bad for a Saturday night in Tuscaloosa.
Courtney Haden is a Weld columnist. Send your feedback to email@example.com.