Jamey Johnson Interview: Singer/Songwriter Reflects on His Early Music Roots and Hank Williams' Influence
Thirty-four year old country music star Jamey Johnson was born in Enterprise, Alabama, but when he was a toddler of three his family made the trek eighty-five miles north to Montgomery, the city where music legend Hank Williams lived a short but memorable career.
Even though he declares Montgomery to be home, the singer/songwriter moved to Music City USA in his early 20s because “If you want to be in country music, obviously you need to be as close to Nashville as you can be.”
"I can’t even remember what I used to do for fun, but I do enjoy eating every day."
First signed to BNA records in 2005, the artist made his debut with his single “The Dollar,” but was dropped a year later from the label.
In 2008, now signed to Mercury Nashville Records, Johnson released the album, “That Lonesome Song,” that produced two hit singles: the Top 10 hit “In Color” and “High Cost of Living.”
In addition to writing his own material, Johnson has co-written songs for Trace Adkins, George Strait, James Otto, and Joe Nichols. He was recently honored by the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and given the “Rising Star” award.
Johnson, although deadly serious about his music, actually takes the newly found fame with a grain of salt and retains his outrageous and sometime self-deprecating sense of humor.
“I just left Country’s Barbecue, where I’m pretty sure I had lunch with two hundred and fifty or more of my closest friends,” he quipped before the Hall of Fame ceremony in Montgomery on March 25.
Johnson received three Grammy nominations at the 51st Grammy Awards: Best Country Album for “That Lonesome Song,” and Best Country Song and Best Male Country Vocal Performance for “In Color.”
“In Color” won the Academy of Country Music’s 2009 award for Song of the Year and the same award during the 2009 Country Music Association Awards. He received two more Grammy Award nominations in 2010 for the 52nd Grammy Awards: Best Country Song and Best Male Country Vocal Performance, both for his 2009 single, “High Cost of Living.”
Deeply rooted in Southern country music, Johnson is somewhat of a rebel and definitely sings in his own style … somewhere between Jennings and Jones, to quote his own lyrics from a tune co-written with songwriter/record producer Buddy Cannon.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Jamey, are you feeling better? I know you were a little under the weather before the Alabama Music Hall of Fame event.
Jamey Johnson: I had a flu bug that week and had just gotten a shot the night before the Hall of Fame thing – got a little cortisone shot as we pulled into Montgomery. That kind of helped me out – it got me past the fever and all.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did it feel to perform with The Blind Boys of Alabama at the Hall of Fame ceremony?
Jamey Johnson: Religious would be he best word that comes to mind. It was just like being in church, singing with the old quartets that I sang with growing up. All of those guys are really strong singers. I’ve never heard anything like The Blind Boys. They are just incredible and they’ve been doing this for seventy-five years.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you hear stories about Hank Williams as you grew up in Montgomery?
Jamey Johnson: Yes, we heard many stories about Hank. But, I guess most of the stories I heard in my house were about family. We had our share of characters – still do. A lot of them are still around causing trouble. I still hear about them every now and again.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have other family members who were interested in music?
Jamey Johnson: Too many to count. Most everybody in my family have done something at one point or another involved in music, whether it’s singing in the choir or honky tonk bands or what.
My uncle Bobby was kind of a vagrant. He never held a job for long and only held a job long enough to get the money and then to get out of it. I don’t even think he finished many things in his life, but he had an old guitar. He enjoyed traveling around and playing music for people and that’s pretty much how he made his living when he got to the west coast. We’ve got some real interesting folks in my family, especially regarding music.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have any siblings, Jamey?
Jamey Johnson: I’ve got three sisters – I’m number two out of four.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do your sisters sing or play musical instruments?
Jamey Johnson: All of them do something. My oldest sister sings in the choir and plays the piano. She even gives her children piano lessons.
My younger sister played the flute in band growing up. She sings also, and the same with my baby sister. They were all talented in music for a time growing up and they took great pride in it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When did you first realize that you had an interest in country music?
Jamey Johnson: I don’t recall there ever being a time where I finally popped awake and said, “Hey, this country music sounds good.” I think it’s always been there. I mean, it would have been weird in my house to do anything different.
We had gospel music, we listened to country music, and usually if you’re going to play anything, it’s going to be something you've heard or that you knew.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I assume one of your musical idols was Hank Williams?
Jamey Johnson: Yes, one of the first songs I learned how to play was a Hank Williams song that I’d learned from a book. My dad had a couple of Hank Williams music books at home that he taught me how to play guitar with.
We had that and a book of Alabama songs – a book that covered like six Alabama songs. So those were the first books that I learned how to play as far as playing what I read. The other stuff I learned just off of their records or whatever we had to listen to.
That turned me on to guys like Buddy Holly, Waylon Jennings, Vern Gosdin, and I learned a lot of music off of the radio growing up. They played good stuff on the radio when I was a kid. They would play Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, John Conlee, Earl Thomas Conley, Keith Whitley.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You really can’t get that on the radio now, When I was growing up, there were stations that would play different types of music. Now, they primarily have country stations, rock stations, etc.
Jamey Johnson: Yeah, they don’t have any more of the ones that just play whatever they want to play. But, you find out real quickly when a station is set up that way that your audience is going to chime in and let you know what they want to hear. You need to play what your audience wants to hear.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You quit college and enlisted in the marines. Did you like being in the armed forces?
Jamey Johnson: Love/hate. It was all of it together. I enjoyed it while I was in and I also remember that I couldn’t wait to get out.
I look back in fondness now with memories of things that probably weren’t as great as I remember them now (laughs). But, I do remember loving it – at the time it was something I was proud to get to do.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Would you have gone to Iraq?
Jamey Johnson: I was ready. I mean, when you sign up … sign your name there, you don’t get to decide what’s to become of the world while you’re serving.
I got my discharge in the mail the same week that the rest of my friends got their orders to go overseas. So, I was done, but there was a point where it wasn’t an option anymore. But, while it was an option, I was seriously thinking about re-enlisting and going over.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): But you decided to pursue a career in country music instead. Did your first professional break come with “The Dollar,” your debut single, after signing to BNA Records in 2005?
Jamey Johnson: I think so. I mean, that would have been the first song I had on the radio with the exception of Bear O’Brian. He put me on the radio when he was in Montgomery and that would have been in the early to mid 90s.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You wrote “The Dollar” from a personal experience, correct?
Jamey Johnson: I really don’t think that is relevant to anything.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You don’t like to talk about the meanings of your songs, do you?
Jamey Johnson: I don’t ever like to talk about the songs that I write as far as the inspiration behind them or to explain them in any degree of depth whatsoever. I just choose to leave them alone and let somebody else make up their mind about them.
I know how tight they are to me and how close they are to me and that’s all I need to know.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In your songwriting process, do you usually write the lyrics first?
Jamey Johnson: I can’t even describe that with any degree of intelligence. It’s all kinds of ways. I mean, you never know how a song’s gonna approach you just like a blessing from heaven does, you know, or about the same way a car jumps out of nowhere and t-bones you at an intersection.
You never know how a song is going to come to you. They just do. Sometimes they run you over and sometimes they’re standing there politely waiting on you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): To change the subject somewhat, I heard that you and Matthew McConaughey bet on the Alabama/Texas National Championship game back in January. We know you took Bama, therefore, you won the wager (final score 37-21). How did all of that come about?
Jamey Johnson: (laughs) Well, we’ve gotten to be friends recently. I was in Miami and I thought about how ironic it was that Alabama and Texas were going to be playing each other for the National Championship and so I sent Matthew a message. He said I should put my money where my mouth is. So I put $500 on Alabama.
It was funny because whoever won was going to donate the money to Gambler’s Anonymous. But, Gambler’s Anonymous wouldn’t take the check. Matthew ended up FedExing me a check that has been sitting in my car now for about a month or two.
I’m going to find a way to slip that into Gambler’s Anonymous. I figure anybody that is betting against Alabama in a National Championship game is probably got a gambling problem (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Some people say that you are associated with a new Outlaw Country movement. What do you think that means?
Jamey Johnson: I don’t know (laughs). I don’t know if they are being polite or rude. I don’t know, I quit listening to people.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think that some country music today bleeds over into rock?
Jamey Johnson: As far as how country music compared to rock or bleeds into rock, Hank Williams was the very first rock ‘n roller, just by lifestyle.
These guys in the rock ‘n roll world today, most of them even recognize the fact that rock ‘n roll didn’t start with Elvis Presley; it started way before that, traced back even through the blues.
Hank was listening to the blues, too. He learned how to play that stuff when he was in his teens in Alabama. That’s about as rooted as you can get in it. By the time he was in his mid 20s, Hank Williams was the consummate rock ‘n roll artist. He was already huge in a certain region of the country without mainstream success.
When Hank got started into the mainstream as far as getting radio play and that sort of thing where the national media would respond to a show, not just the local media, he was the biggest thing in not just country music but any music.
That doesn’t surprise me when people talk about how much country influence is in rock ‘n roll. They both started from the same place.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You’re on the Rowdy Friends Tour now?
Jamey Johnson: Yes, along with Hank Williams, Jr., Eric Church, and The Grascals.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How many cities are on the tour?
Jamey Johnson: I don’t have the t-shirt in front of me so I couldn’t tell you (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Jamey, what would you like to do that you have not accomplished yet … any interest in films or television?
Jamey Johnson: I’d like to have another couple of kids and a messy divorce. That was fun (laughs).
I’ve thought about the movies, but I just don’t know if I would make that great an actor. Hell, I don’t even like to do music videos if I can help it. Some of them are fun.
But, by and large, I’m not the kind of guy who likes pulling up to a set around a lot of bitchy producers and directors and have people just pretty much get annoyed with you and start moving you all over the set or whatever. That stuff just doesn’t appeal to me. In our shows we’re very much in control of how the attitude of the show goes.
I tell you what, it was fun doing Miranda Lambert’s video, “The White Liar.” We got out there on just a beautiful afternoon, broke open a nice little bottle of moonshine, and by the time it passed around I think everybody was in good spirits (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is there anyone you’d like to sing with that you have not performed with thus far in your career?
Jamey Johnson: Well, we’re kind of working our way through those over the course of the next year or so but I don’t think I’ll ever be done with that list. Just as soon as you go and do a show with somebody you want to go do another one, so the list keeps growing and the opportunities keep coming.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you performed with George Jones?
Jamey Johnson: Yes, just did a song with Blackberry Smoke … a version of “Yesterday’s Wine.” You can find it on the new Blackberry Smoke album. They are a band out of Marietta, Georgia.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you working on a new album?
Jamey Johnson: Actually a new one will be out real soon. I think they’re saying June or July.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What is the title?
Jamey Johnson: It is called The Guitar Song. There will be a white album and a black album. There will be more explanations inside the album jackets as to why it is done this way.
But, basically it is a little tail that revolves around a yin yang. As it gets further along you see how the opening situation evolves into some of these other situations. Each song is affected by the next … or each song affects the next, or kind of sets up the next.
It gets dark and dismal and then it shows how on the white album everything gets better and better until it can’t get any better. It just keeps going full circle. Each album bleeds into the other without stopping and so if you put both albums on and hit the repeat button they play in perpetuity. They never stop.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sounds like an interesting concept. What do you like to do, Jamey, in your spare time when you’re not performing?
Jamey Johnson: We’re always on the road so I don’t really have a whole lot of time. Everything right now is too busy. I can’t even remember what I used to do for fun, but I do enjoy eating every day. We’re trying to slip a meal in now between interviews (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What kind of food do you enjoy?
Jamey Johnson: I like all kinds of food and absolutely love southern cooking. You can’t really get that in some of the northern places but you can get something close … their own little version of home cooking and that’s good too.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you return to Montgomery often?
Jamey Johnson: I don’t get back as much as I would like to. My family is just like me. They are spread out all over the place, but we see each other when we can.
Photo Credits: Front slider photo by Marc Parker
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