Jamey Johnson 

The Guitar Song

It took a while for folks to cotton to hard-luck honky-tonk singer Jamey Johnson. No one paid attention to his excellent debut, The Dollar, and his second album, That Lonesome Song, was a hard sell, too — probably because it documented the disintegration of his marriage. Still, it ultimately caught the eye of Mercury Records head Luke Lewis, won a Best Album nomination from the Country Music Association, and slowly went gold.

The Guitar Song is the ambitious follow-up, a 25-song two-disc set with no power ballads or concessions to pop. The first album, Black, delivers tales of darkness and depression taken at funereal tempos. "Lonely at the Top" deals with the tribulations of fame, with a working-class twist. When he sings It might be lonely at the top, but it's a bitch at the bottom, you can feel a cynical sneer on his lips. "Baby Don't Cry" is a lullaby that uses fairy tale images to describe the terrors of childhood. "That's How I Don't Love You" is an alcoholic's torch song delivered in a desperate growl. "Even the Skies Are Blue" is a lament with hints of George Jones in the phrasing.

White, the second disc, is a bit more uplifting, but that's a relative term in Johnson's world. "Good Times Ain't What They Used To Be" is the most energetic track, with a driving beat and fancy pedal steel work. But it's as much a lament about the excess of youth as it is a celebration of life's sedate pleasures. Kristofferson's "For the Good Times" gets a jazzy, late-night reading with Johnson teasing the implied pain out of each lazily crooned syllable. This is an old fashioned, heart-on-its-sleeve, dirt-under-its-nails country album, without a single bad song or wasted note. (Mercury)

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