Jamey Johnson takes a traditional approach to country songwriting, a stance not always commercially viable in the early 21st century. Johnson came to Nashville in 2000 and, after years of struggling, cut The Dollar in 2005, but when the label couldn't get a hit single off the album, they dropped him. Johnson concentrated on his songwriting and had hits with George Strait, who took "Give It Away" to number one; Trace Adkins, and another number one with "Ladies Love Country Boys"; and Joe Nichols. Proving that chart success doesn't always equal happiness, Johnson's marriage broke up around this time and he spent a long while in seclusion writing the desperate songs that make up That Lonesome Song. Johnson first released the album on his website, then his own Humphead label, but Mercury Records picked it up for nationwide release in August of 2008. The critical cliché would be "They don't write albums like That Lonesome Song any more," which is at least partially true. The raw emotion and barely controlled heartache that Johnson brings to his singing and songwriting on the album aren't exactly in style in 2008's country market, but lovers of old-fashioned hardcore country and honky tonk music will be stunned by its emotional depth and strong melodies. Most modern country singers flounder when they try to put across a ballad, often loading down the lyric with sentimentality rather than real feeling. On an album that's almost exclusively ballads, Johnson never falls into that trap. The songs are full of keen insights, clever turns of phrase, and real emotion.
"High Cost of Living" is a moody evaluation of life on the skids that references pot, booze, drugs, infidelity, and hopelessness, without dipping into self-pity. The Hammond B-3 that plays in the background makes it sound like an anti-gospel song and the hook uses the kind of wordplay that used to be the hallmark of country songwriting -- "The high cost of living ain't nothing like the cost of living high." On "Mowin' Down the Roses" the B-3 gives the tune a spooky feel, as Johnson delivers a somber exorcism of his former life, purging the house of every trace of his wife: smashing her pictures, flushing her perfume down the toilet, and mowin' down the roses in the garden. The song doesn't sound like a celebration of newfound freedom; it's a hopeless dirge delivered in a flat, emotionless tone that makes the song even more effective. It's followed by a Bob McDill tune, "The Door Is Always Open," one of the few hopeful numbers on the album, although its lyric and Johnson's delivery give the song a less hopeful spin that you'd expect. The title tune paints the picture of a bleak, hung-over morning. It starts as a acoustic lament, then slowly adds a loping Waylon Jennings beat to deliver a cautionary tale of a singer who throws his life away for the love of a lonesome song. "Women" is a celebration of the fairer sex, and one man's inability to understand them. It's a tongue-in-cheek tune with a great pedal steel break, and rides that jaunty Waylon two-step stomp rhythm. The album closes with the self-congratulatory tale of Johnson's quest for fame, a guy who comes to Nashville with his own sound, somewhere "Between Jennings and Jones." It's another tune that almost dips into self-parody, but Johnson's style is, in fact, between Jennings and Jones. His ironic delivery of the tune is perfect and as he points out in the lyric, if they still had record stores, his albums would be filed between Jennings and Jones. ~ j. poet