Country's Jamey Johnson talks about inspiration, heroes

The multiple Grammy nominee, hit songwriter and solo country star takes his work seriously, no question. But Johnson says the secret to the sustained quality of his songs is that he remains committed to putting inspiration before craft.

“I write music I’m inspired to write,” says Johnson. “I’m always trying to find words that have meaning to me. The inspiration can reveal itself in different ways. But it seldom ever reveals itself through a ‘process.’”  

The 41-year-old Alabama native returns to Memphis this weekend, headlining a show Saturday at Minglewood Hall.

In addition to a successful solo career — which has seen Johnson release five critically acclaimed albums, including 2008’s platinum breakthrough, “That Lonesome Song” — his work has long earned the respect of the genre’s masters, with everyone from Willie Nelson to Merle Haggard cutting his songs.

Johnson has also enjoyed a fruitful association with George Strait, who recorded a pair of Johnson’s cuts on his most recent studio album, as well as the 2006 Johnson co-write "Give It Away," which went onto win both the ACM and CMA Song of the Year awards. The relationship with Strait has been a dream come true for Johnson. “Most people don’t ever even get to meet their heroes, let alone have them record their songs and later on get to work with them,” he says. “It’s been one of the joys of my life.”

Next week, Strait will release another career box set that will feature a new, unreleased song he wrote with Johnson called "Kicked Outta Country.” For two seemingly old-school types, Johnson and Strait collaborated using a bit of modern technology. “We wrote it by text message,” chuckles Johnson. “I don’t know if it’s a first for either one of us, but it’s definitely a first for the two of us working that way together.”

The song evolved out of a lyrical exchange. “He sent me these lines, and I sent him some lines back. He really liked it and asked what it would sound like, and I said, ‘Well let me put a melody to it and I’ll send it to you.’ And that’s how it came to be.”

When Johnson finally heard his rough cell phone recording rendered properly, he was knocked out. “Oh, it came it out a lot better than I even imagined it. We kind of bypassed a lot of steps doing it like we did. There was no demo, so to speak. It was just me playing a guitar in my living room into a phone. And then the next thing, he took that into the studio and recorded that with the band.”

Johnson’s own recording career has been on a bit of hold. After a long tenure on the Mercury label, he’s at loose ends contractually. Asked as to his future recording plans, he’s circumspect (“I’d rather not get into that right now”), though he did release independently a pair of singles in 2015

Johnson’s last full-length album came in 2012, as he led a loving, star-studded tribute to iconic Music City songsmith Hank Cochran, called “Living for a Song.” It was a deeply personal project for Johnson, who both knew and respected Cochran —  the author of signature songs for Patsy Cline and Eddy Arnold, among others — who died in 2010. “Hank was the best songwriter in country music," Johnson says. "I think his music resonated with multiple generations. He wrote the songs of my generation. He wrote the songs of the generation before me.

“I wanted to make sure that I honored his legacy, especially in his passing. And make sure that if there’s a new generation listening to my music, that I help steer them in the right direction, and towards his songs.”

For Johnson, the record was a way of paying back Cochran. “One of Hank’s dreams, he told me once, was he really hoped Alison Krauss would record one of his songs. This is coming from Hank Cochran, the guy who wrote songs for Patsy Cline. He loved Alison. And so that’s why the album opens up with one of Hank’s dreams coming true, with [Alison] doing ‘Make the World Go Away.'”  

Johnson has been vocal proponent for his musical forebears — from Waylon Jennings to George Jones — often covering their songs in concert. As to future tribute album, he allows it’s a possibility. “Am I gonna do another covers record? If it’s right, I would, sure. I have no problems covering the songs that meant and mean something to me still. I particularly love doing the songs that my heroes wrote and that my friends wrote. Merle Haggard, especially, has been a strong influence over me. It’s not unthinkable that I may someday do a Haggard record.”

As he makes his way to Minglewood Hall for his headlining show, fans can expect the unexpected from Johnson — whose concerts rarely rely on a set list or formula, and frequently go off in unexpected directions. “My thing is I play what I feel like playing in the moment, and I enjoy it that way,” he says. “If it’s going well, we might try a few things we haven’t done before. I’m not afraid of playing anything, as long as I have a well-capable band behind me, and I do have that.”

As to his plans beyond the Memphis shows, Johnson is pushing through on the road. “I’ve got my own shows I’m doing, and then we’ll play Warren Haynes’ Christmas Jam in Asheville. And a couple dates at the Ryman with Emmylou Harris before the end of the year,” he says. “As for next year, we’re still talking. We may book a couple things, may turn around and book a tour. We’ll keep going though. I ain’t stopping.”

Memphis Commercial Appeal