Reviews of Jamey Johnson always call him a country traditionalist, and he is; the guy clearly worships (and draws low sodden anchored-to-the-bottom-of-the-ocean vocal influence from) Waylon Jennings, who probably never made an album this great. But calling Johnson a traditionalist ignores certain trappings—in a way, his grey-blurred and desolate album cover, his scraggly pioneer’s goatee, and his use of open space and clanking belfry sound effects align Johnson more with gothic art-metal acts like Neurosis than with anybody else on country radio.
An earlier version of That Lonesome Song was self-released on the songwriting singer’s Web site in 2007, when he’d reportedly been living in hermit seclusion after an ugly divorce. The album’s key track—an inexorable six-minute drone called “High Cost of Living,” which has as much to do with cocaine and whores and smoking pot beneath giant crucifixes as with the current U.S. economy—is as true and devastating a tour of mental depression as you’ll hear.
From there, Johnson could coast. Instead, he tractors over his marital rose garden, wishes his wife would hop off the free-love merry-go-round, pages through a photo album that could pass as a history book, mocks his own loneliness, misses his Alabama mama, and sorts through a record store’s “J” section. He’s addicted to dirges like no Nashville artist in years—the title cut is moaned in a grunge baritone that would scare Chad Kroeger. But he also knows how to use wit and prettiness to save his gloomy music from the grave.