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High Lonesome Sound

How Jamey Johnson turned personal and professional disaster into one of the year's best country albums

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For Jamey Johnson, 2006 had its ups and downs.

First, the Alabama-born singer-songwriter and his wife of four years split up. Then his record label, for which he had scored the Top-20 hit "The Dollar" the year before, dropped him. So he did what he always does when things go wrong: He turned misery into music.

The divorce inspired "Give It Away" (written with Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon), which—as delivered by George Strait—became a No. 1 hit and took Song of the Year honors from both the Country Music Association and Academy of Country Music. Then Johnson set about recording That Lonesome Song, an album that chronicled both his personal frustrations and his determination to push through them. He put the tracks up for sale on his website and hoped for the best.

Mercury Nashville got wind of the deafening buzz around Johnson's new music, and before he knew it he had a new single on the radio (the dazzling "In Color"). And last week, a slightly retooled version of That Lonesome Song hit stores with major-label backing. Johnson sat down with the Scene in the new Mercury offices, overlooking the Ryman Auditorium, and mused about his unlikely journey.

Scene: You used to be a professional contractor. Was it difficult to adjust to the music business?

JJ: Sometimes it's easy to get enamored of cameras and famous people. One day I went from being a contractor in a pickup truck to standing beside George Strait at the ACM Awards holding a trophy. That's not normal. I'm right at home with it now. I'm glad people like listening to my songs. Hell, when they quit listening I've gotta go back home and quit bothering people. [Laughs.] I've got a hammer in my garage with my name on it, just waiting for me to go build another house or hang some drywall. I'm not in any rush.

Scene: That Lonesome Song plays like a coherent artistic statement, which not many albums do anymore. Was that intentional?

JJ: I thought about it like a family photo album. It's not going to have every picture from start to finish of your whole life, it's just going to incorporate a certain time period. You get to see what people looked like from this year to this year, or from this month to that. This album had to take people to that place where I was at that time, which was a dark place. I just decided to tell that story.

Scene: Did you have any hesitation about sharing all that darkness with the people who are going to hear the album?

JJ: You always do. Believe it or not, I'm a pretty private guy. I don't really welcome that many people into my direct situation. But when you go to write a song, you owe it to your listener to give them complete honesty, to tell them the full story in a way they can hear it, understand it and apply it to their life. If you can't do that, it's like peeing in your pants: You might get a warm feeling, but nobody else really cares to know. [Laughs.] I'm putting one out there to the guy or girl sitting at the end of the bar who doesn't understand the feeling they've got going on because somebody left 'em. I want to let those people know it's going to be all right. Hell, I'm laughing about it already.

Scene: You cover two Waylon Jennings songs on the album, which were both originally on his Dreaming My Dreams album. Why did you pick those?

JJ: You tend to seek music the most when you need some understanding other than what we get from our parents, friends and everyone else. There's got to be a deeper meaning. What has somebody else learned from this? Dreaming My Dreams has always been one of my favorite records. I found myself listening to this album so many times riding around in my truck. There would be weeks when I wouldn't take it out, I'd just sit there and go through those songs one at a time. The two that really seemed to speak to me were "The Door's Always Open" and "Dreaming My Dreams With You."

Scene: Do you have an overall goal in mind?

JJ: I don't really care if I'm ever famous or wealthy beyond my wildest dreams, although it would be a nice side effect. The goal is to go out there every night and sing country music for people that don't get to hear what I got to hear growing up, that old-school country sound. That's just locked inside me, man. I could get amnesia and still remember what that sounds like. No matter what happens, I'm just gonna wake up tomorrow and bring country music to the people.

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