(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Over the past few years,
Jamey Johnson has been leading a quiet revolution in country music. He’s
been doing so without consciously making announcements or calling attention to himself and without issuing manifestos calling
for a revolution.
The man has simply gone about the business of personally rebuilding country music’s basic structure
and of summoning the genre’s traditionally strong framework — that of graphic story-telling and simple truths, simple passions,
passionate, to-the-bone music and true-life lessons. The result has been country heart-and-soul music with all the grit and
sweat and come-to-Jesus fervor the music has been known for all these many years.
And Johnson has not been laboring
in the vineyards and the fields all by himself. How many years have George
Strait and Alan Jackson and Vince
Gill and other lonely evangelists been preaching the country message, only to hear country radio finally tell them to
get more commercial?
I was greatly encouraged this week when I was privileged to hear about two-thirds of Ashley
Monroe‘s upcoming album. It’s produced by Vince Gill, it has a cast of all-star musicians and contains some stone-cold
brilliant country songs. Songs with genuine gritty mature content — not frivolous teenage beer-babes-trucks-dirt road ditties.
Johnson has not gotten a lot of country radio airplay, but he is not playing that game. He records what he wants, and his
records are what they are. Come and listen, if you want to. If you don’t care, don’t bother. It won’t trouble him.
message harkens back throughout country music’s history. Johnson’s hero has always been his fellow Alabama native Hank
Williams, and it’s no stretch to observe that Jamey has often explored some of Hank’s themes of loneliness, tragedy, death,
loss, salvation and redemption.
Another songwriter named Hank followed that same highway. The late Hank
Cochran‘s life reads like an epochal country song: born in rural Mississippi, almost died in infancy from several childhood
diseases, parents divorced when he was 9, sent to an orphanage, ran away twice from the orphanage, lived with his grandparents
and hitchhiked with his uncle to work in oil fields out West, went to California seeking work and formed the singing duo the
Cochran Brothers with Eddie Cochran — who was no relation. Eddie later became a pioneering rock ‘n’ roll singer with hits
such as “Summertime Blues.”
Now Johnson has just released a landmark tribute album to Cochran, and I can’t think of
a riskier commercial venture in today’s country climate of demanding hits now! Hits now! And youth! Youth! Think young! Think
young! Good luck to all the one-hit wonders who are going through this cycle of survival of the fittest. Just imagine the
number of would-be and wanna-be Taylor Swift replacements who have been
chewed up and then discarded by the Nashville hit machinery over the past few years.
Jamey is in no danger of being
considered a teen idol, but the notion of a major record label putting out a tribute album to a songwriter who is largely
unknown to the entire music-buying public — especially the young music-buying public — is crazy.
I think it’s indicative
of the high regard the music community has for Jamey that he was able to wrangle a very impressive assemblage of artists to
duet with him on the 16 cuts on this album. Think: Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss, Merle Haggard,
Vince Gill, Leon Russell, Emmylou Harris, Ray
Price, Asleep at the Wheel, Elvis
Costello, Red Lane, George Strait, Ronnie Dunn, Bobby
Bare, Lee Ann Womack, Kris
Kristofferson and Hank Cochran, himself, before his death.
The album, Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran,
has 16 Cochran songs sung by Johnson and his friends in duets and collaborations. Johnson’s song selection is smart and displays
his familiarity with Cochran’s catalog.
There are some familiar big hits, such as “Make the World Go Away,” which
was a No. 1 hit for Eddy Arnold and has been covered dozens of times. Or
“I Fall to Pieces,” which Patsy Cline took to No. 1.
are the lesser-known songs such as “I Don’t Do Windows,” which was an album cut on Cochran’s own 1980 album Make the World
Go Away. Or “A Way to Survive,” which was first recorded by the Capricorns in 1964. It was later cut by several singers,
including Ray Price, Dottie West, Johnny
Bush, Junior Brown and Gene
Living for a Song is an artistic risk by a successful risk-taker. It’s an artistic risk in the same
way that Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and Stardust albums were risks. The result? Stardust sold
quintuple platinum, went to No. 1 and the track “Georgia on My Mind” won a Grammy for Willie. Red Headed Stranger went
to No. 1 and became a movie.
And it’s a risk in the sense that Vince Gill’s quadruple, almost schizophrenic CD package
These Days was a risk. The result? A Grammy for Gill.
Thank the Lord for country risk-takers.