Country singer/songwriter Jamey Johnson: ‘It’s best to be yourself’

05/22/2014 2:37 PM

05/22/2014 2:37 PM

Clarification: This interview took place at Farm Aid in September.

Jamey Johnson gets almost as much notice for his funky beard as he does for his music. But Johnson is much more than a piece of lengthy facial hair.

The Alabama native is a gifted country songwriter and an adept performer. “It can be funny in country,” Johnson said backstage at Farm Aid in September. “You either write the songs or sing the songs. I’ve always liked doing both.”

Johnson, who will perform Friday at the Cotillion, has paid many bills courtesy of the songs he’s penned for other recording artists. He co-wrote Trace Adkins’ big hit “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” among other smashes.

“I like writing a song and having someone succeed with it,” Johnson said. “It’s a great feeling.”

Johnson’s childhood helped shape him as a singer-songwriter. His deeply religious family was all about music, starting with the church choir, which his father directed. By the time Johnson was 10, he learned how to fingerpick the guitar. He devoured music while Hank Williams Sr. provided the soundtrack for much of his childhood.

“I got the basics when I was growing up,” Johnson said.

After spending a few years in college, Johnson joined the Marine Reserves and really grew up. “It was a valuable experience,” Johnson said. “I have tried to take the good from every job I’ve ever had.”

It took a little while but Johnson finally gave in to his calling. “They Call Me Country” was the apt title to his self-produced debut album.

But it was his back-to-basics 2008 album, “That Lonesome Song,” that launched his career. The gritty “The Guitar Song” added to his fan base when it dropped in 2010.

“It’s an amazing feeling when you make an album and somebody enjoys it enough to support what you’re doing,” Johnson said.

Johnson took another step with “Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran,” a labor of love that was released in 2012.

“I love his music,” Johnson said. “There was nobody like Hank Cochran, and the great thing about my album was that it wasn’t planned. It was completely organic. It hit me how special his songs are. Somebody has to keep them alive. It would be a crime if they were just forgotten. I didn’t want that to happen.”

The Cochran project is wonderful, but Johnson’s best work is what he has written. An outlaw in the vein of Waylon Jennings, Johnson is at his best writing some of the darkest country songs you’ll ever hear.

“I don’t know why anyone would want to look or sound like anybody else,” Johnson said. “It’s best to be yourself. If you see me or hear me, you know that’s true. I don’t think there’s anyone like me.”

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