“I was just a normal guy”, Jamey Johnson sings to begin “High Cost of Living”, at the start of his album That Lonesome Song. The rough, experienced nature of his voice emphasizes the was in that statement. He sounds lifetimes away from “normal”. It’s the song of someone who hit rock bottom and may be coming out the other side. It’s written with the vivid details of the best fiction writing and the bluntness of documentary. “I had a job and a piece of land / My sweet wife was my best friend / But I traded that for cocaine and a whore”, he sings, most bluntly. Those lyrics might seem exaggerated from a lesser singer. From Johnson’s mouth the words hit hard. There’s incredulity to his story, directed inward. “How did I get to this point?” is an underlying question.
The song is not just telling a story of the pain people put themselves through, the prisons they create for themselves. It’s also asking, without answer, and without being in any way preachy about it, the question of why. The song’s length, almost six minutes, echoes both the everyday doldrums the protagonist was escaping and the personal hell he ended up in: one routine traded for another. But to us, on a musical and storytelling level, it’s six minutes of pleasure. The textures of the song, and the album, are gritty: classic heartbreak country and electrified outlaw country. At the end of the song is a duel between a shredding rock-guitar solo and a more sensitive steel guitar solo, which has a matter-of-fact, that’s-the-way-the-cookie-crumbles quality that takes us outside of the story being told.
The opening song starkly takes us through someone’s personal hell, and that’s just the beginning. Song after song, someone is ripping himself, or someone else, apart. The bitter “Mowin’ Down the Roses” finds Johnson destroying any trace of his ex-lover in their once-home, from photographs to her prized roses. He sports a crazed smile on his face. The song is funny, but also brutal: “And I ripped your face straight off the wall / left nothing but some holes”. “Sending an Angel to Hell” is an especially blunt trip through the turmoil of the heart, and related moral pondering. The central question the protagonist asks himself about his role in the death of a love affair is this: “Am I shaking a demon that’s after my soul / Or sending an angel to hell?” That’s tough talk, high drama, but sung at a gut level. “Mary Go Round” takes the perspective of a man watching the woman he cares about run around town with other men. There’s a line in it that represents a theme for the album: “This ain’t no game / And these demons ain’t playing around.”
“Place Out on the Ocean” is musically set up to sound like an escape from the bleakness, with even the sound of an airplane carrying us away at the start. But as Johnson sings about a place that’s away from it all, it’s clear the pain of real life is no further away in presence. Not only is his mind still on the woman he’s running from, or who’s run from him, but he sounds completely unsure about where life is going. “I hope I’m sane by the time I’m done”, he sings — not the usual sentiment for a vacation. When the airplane sound returns at the end of the song, it’s clear we’re not heading to a tropical island, but back into the thick of it.
Preceded by a rather ugly spoken joke/story, which basically amounts to “I got so drunk I slept with an ugly girl!”, “Women” also has the appearance of a lark. It uses a crashing cymbal like a comedy show might, to accentuate a punchline. That sets up the song like it’ll be a string of “what’s the deal with women?” stand-up jokes. But the substance of it isn’t funny; it’s the loneliness of failure, the pain in the way lovers torture each other. “I’ve made ‘em go insane / And I’ve made ‘em go away”, he sings, “I just can’t seem to make one stay”.
Hurt is universal, these songs tell us. With “In Color”, Johnson cogently articulates that theme in the form of a radio song, currently on the charts. With a tear-jerking side and looking-back side, the song fits the universality of the radio format well. It also has a strong melody at its hook, one Johnson has credited to co-writer James Otto. But the main reason the song is a brilliant single — in my opinion, the country single of the year thus far — is how cleverly it phrases the notion that all of us, at every stage of life, are scared to death. The song’s grandfather character looks back through old black-and-white photos and says, with comic flair on top of pain, “if it looks like we were scared to death, you should have seen these in color.”
The title track also traces the hurt of today back through the years, as its character finds solace in a melancholy tune that he can never quite place but that keeps coming back. He’s “humming that lonesome song again”. That song contains some especially vivid writing that captures the loneliness of the present. And then it ties that feeling into music, into a tune that is carried along by railroad trains and the passing wind. ‘That lonesome song’ is also all of the songs Johnson is singing here. Somewhere within this song you can probably find the stories of Johnson’s real life, of being dropped by a record label, for example. “That Lonesome Song” ties his style of music to the music of the ghosts of country music past. At the end of the album, he similarly sings about being between Jennings and Jones, both literally in the record-store shelves and stylistically.
The ghost of Waylon Jennings looms huge over That Lonesome Song. He’s pulling Jennings’s spirit into his own songs, through his singing voice as much as the rough-and-tumble nature of the songs. So when he sings two songs off Jennings’ 1975 classic Dreaming My Dreams — “The Door Is Always Open” and “Dreaming My Dreams With You” — it’s not just appropriate but powerful, especially because of how well he sings them. As he sings he pulls from a deep reservoir of feeling at least as well as Jennings did. And the music is arranged sparely enough to amplify the impact. The whole album is marked by that strategy, of keeping things simple and restrained enough for the lyrics and singing to hit hard.
On “The Last Cowboy”, Johnson sings, “ever since Waylon I can’t find no one to buy into sad country songs”. But he’s determined to try. The strength of That Lonesome Song lies not in its relation to past country classics, but in how well Johnson draws from that same river of human sadness and puts those dark feelings and experiences into song, without pulling any punches. Hurt is universal, and the lonesome tune just keeps carrying on, passed from generation to generation like a spirit, an elemental force of nature.