ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Country musician Jamey Johnson of Montgomery, Alabama, is himself a Southern throwback. These days, when most country music has more polish than the hood of a truck in a Chevy commercial, Johnson's music is, in many ways, rough. His last album, "That Lonesome Song," had critics comparing him to Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. Now, he's back with an ambitious, 25-song double CD called "The Guitar Song."
Critic Will Hermes has our review.
WILL HERMES: On his last record, Jamey Johnson stood out from the usual gang of clean-scrubbed Nashville pseudo-cowboys like an unwashed ranch hand at a horse breeders' cocktail party. He sang about crash-and-burn outlaw types and workaday broken hearts, angry exes and pot-smoking lapsed Baptists, while his band played frayed, jammed-out honky-tonk rock.
(Soundbite of song, "High Cost of Living")
Mr. JAMEY JOHNSON (Singer): (Singing) I tell you, the high cost of living, ain't nothing like the cost of living high.
HERMES: That record made him a successful country singer at a time when an awful lot of people - people like the ones in his songs - weren't doing so well economically, an irony that wasn't lost on him. His new album opens in a bar, with a successful singer bending the ear of a dude who helps puts the singer's problems in perspective.
(Soundbite of song, "Lonely at the Top")
Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) I said: Would you like a drink? He said thanks. I'll have a double. I've worked up a powerful thirst just listening to all your troubles. And while he makes that drink, I'll smoke one if you got 'em. It might be lonely at the top, but it's a bitch at the bottom.
HERMES: "The Guitar Song" is split into two halves: the dark "Black Album" and the slightly less dark "White Album." Understand, Johnson is a bluesman at heart. So even a "White Album" track called "Good Morning Sunrise" isn't exactly a happy time wake-up call.
(Soundbite of song, "Good Morning Sunrise")
Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) Good morning, sunrise. How long has it been? Well, it looks like I drank myself sober again. Ever since she left me, you've been so hard to face. Good morning, sunrise. Guess I'll call it a day.
HERMES: Twenty-five songs is a lot, and not every one is perfectly turned. But Johnson is a heck of a writer, and his batting average is really good. Even the relative duds are interesting, like "California Riots," a kiss-off to the Sunshine State which never specifies what riots Johnson is imagining - old immigrants versus new ones? Gay-marriage proponents versus gay-marriage opponents? Johnson isn't telling, because his main point is that he's a man rooted in the American South. And between the country weepers and the Southern-rock burners, his new album is ultimately about how rich the tradition of Southern music remains - at least in the hands of a guy who's already looking like one of country music's greats.
(Soundbite of song, "Macon")
Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) Look out, Macon. Here I come.
SIEGEL: The new album from Jamey Johnson is called "The Guitar Song." Our critic is Will Hermes.
(Soundbite of song, "Macon")
Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) Well, my baby said she ain't crazy about staying...
MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
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