Country Star Jamey Johnson’s A Champion For ‘Hard-Working’ Folks

Boston Globe

As a kid, Jamey Johnson was forbidden to handle his dad’s guitar.

“It was probably just an old cheap pawn shop guitar, but man, he babied the hell out of it,” Johnson recalls. “I wasn’t allowed to touch it until I learned how to play.”

Once he knew how, the aspiring country singer visited a music shop in his native Montgomery, Ala., and tried every guitar hanging on the wall. He fell for an Epiphone acoustic-electric, which would become his trusty sidekick. That was more than 20 years ago.

Johnson, who headlines the House of Blues on Tuesday on a tour sponsored by SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country channel, still plays the big guitar he calls Old Maple. By now, it’s covered with the signatures of many of the musical greats he’s befriended — Willie Nelson, Neil Young, the late Merle Haggard. Since his emergence in the mid-2000s, Johnson has joined the tradition, singing with and paying tribute to his forebears and writing sturdy, no-nonsense songs of his own that practically define the idea of “outlaw” country.

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From the instant classic “In Color,” which imagines an old man walking his grandson through his life in a few black-and-white photos, to “The Dollar,” “High Cost of Living,” and “Between Jennings and Jones,” Johnson has taken his place as an unmistakable voice of country music — somewhere, as the lyric goes, between Waylon Jennings and George Jones. And he’s done it in a mere four proper studio albums, none since 2012.

Since then he has formed his own record label, releasing a batch of Christmas songs and a couple of free-download singles. He’s also recorded several tracks with his mentor and buddy Willie Nelson and has appeared on several tribute projects, honoring Johnny Cash, Roger Miller, Elmore James, and others.

So it’s not as though he’s been idle. Johnson also tours extensively; he’s played the Indian Ranch in Webster nearly every summer since 2013.

“I love it there,” he says, his heavy drawl rumbling. “Man, they turn out. It’s a fun-loving, hard-working crowd.”

Johnson uses the phrase “hard-working” a lot. These are his people.

“There’s hard-working men and women in Boston just like there are in Birmingham,” he says. “When a country guy from Alabama writes a song that a hard-working blue-collar guy from Boston can dig on, he can thank the Internet for that.”

Johnson, who is 43, is old enough to remember a time when certain parts of the nation didn’t “get” the music of another region, he says. And not just country music: “Same for the rockers from LA. That was a cultural divide. When they came to the South, they weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms.

“I think that’s the best thing the Internet has done — taught us all that cultural divides are not even necessary.”

He says he’s not political. Democrats, Republicans: “I just don’t see ’em that way. I’m an American, first and foremost.”

But if there’s one issue he’ll speak out on, it’s civil rights. Growing up in Montgomery, “I had teachers who were black, who ingrained in us how important the movement was.” One, who’d also taught Johnson’s older sister, “was such a strong character in my life, I raised my hand one time to ask a question and accidentally called her ‘Mama.’ ” He lets out a big laugh.

‘There’s hard-working men and women in Boston just like there are in Birmingham.’

In March, he participated in the annual Faith & Politics Institute’s Civil Rights Pilgrimage, visiting the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, among other historic sites. He was proud to take a photo with US Representative John Lewis, the civil rights icon, on the bridge.

“When you’ve been discriminated against, whether it’s because you’re black or female or poor, that discrimination hurts, and it changes you,” he says.

“It’s sad, but that’s the legacy of the South,” he continues. “Racism is real. If you grow up poor and white in southern Alabama, a lot of times, people who associate with being white think, ‘Well, at least I’m one step above that guy. I’m still white.’ If that’s the only thing he has to hang onto, it’s the last thing he’s gonna let go of.”

Before he began his career in music Johnson served eight years in the Marine Corps Reserve as a mortarman.

“As a kid, I always knew I was gonna be a Marine,” he says. “There wasn’t a doubt in my mind.” In training at Parris Island, having played French horn in school, he was given an opportunity to join the Marine Band. (Haggard once told Johnson he could tell that guitar wasn’t his first instrument by the tone of his playing.)

But he declined. “No, that ain’t the kind of Marine I felt I was called to be,” he says now.

The Marines instilled in him a sense of duty, one that has carried over to his work ethic, his belief in human dignity, and his tireless devotion to the legacies of country music.

Besides being a superb, often moving songwriter, “he’s got an inventory of all the great country songs,” says Kate Walker, who goes by “Cousin Kate” on her Sunday Morning Country program on Boston College’s WZBC.

When Johnson and his band — the Kent Hardly Playboys — kick into a Waylon Jennings cover, she says, “it’s like a truck coming down. You just get goosebumps from head to toe.”

Johnson, she says, “is a bit of a brooder onstage.”

With an unruly mane of wiry hair and a flowing, graying beard that spreads across his barrel chest like a bib, Johnson cuts an imposing figure. But if he typically appears stoic, he swears he’s smiling more often than not.

“Oh man, I laugh all the time, all day,” he says. “I just know that life in general, if you can’t laugh at it, you gotta cry.”