Exclusive: Jamey Johnson Interview
By: Matt Bjorke
Roughstock recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Jamey Johnson. Among the things he discussed were his opinions of why his first record deal failed, his thoughts on country music, what he does to make a record and the true meaning behind his acceptance speech for his song of the year award for “Give It Away.”
Matt Bjorke: When did you know you wanted to be a singer?
Jamey Johnson: It's just kind of always been there. Music was fundamental in my family. Sang at bars, all the way to church on Sunday. Music in school, played guitar pulls at the house, go to other people's houses and break out the guitars, it was fun. It was always there, I've just been a part of it.
MB: What kind of jobs did you have along the way, the kind of stuff you didn't want to do but did to make ends meet?
JJ: I did construction, it served me. One job I had I made really good money but I just didn't care what I was doing. I quit that job and went back to framin' houses, there was more freedom. Every job I've ever had I felt like it was something to do until I could get started doing music full-time. The day started doing music full time; it's never felt like work. It's been a great time; get to go in the studio and tour, who wouldn't want to do that? Life's too short to be doing something you have no passion for fifty years then die. That's not to say that's not important too. People are content to work wherever they work so they can be with their families. That's what's important to them. It's honorable and cool too.
MB: What inspires you when you write a song?
JJ: Anything. I guess from everybody. I just take stuff from life and put it to sound. It's like a painter he takes what's in his mind and puts it on canvas. We try to do the same thing. CD's these days are our canvas.
MB: What comes first: the melody or the lyric?
JJ: It's different every time. I can't focus on either one. Can't have one without the other.
MB: How did you feel to get your first record deal?
JJ: Oh man, if felt incredible. It felt like I'd gotten a great opportunity to bring great music to the people. It felt like the beginning of something great. So far it's been a great time
MB: Your first deal obviously didn't work out the way you hoped it would. Do you feel they didn't know what to do with you?
JJ. Joe Galante is not a man that's known for just saying what he thinks you want to hear. He doesn’t just talk to see his lips move. He called me up two weeks after I got dropped and he said Sony merged with BMG Music, the two biggest record labels in the world, pretty much collided together. But that’s what it was. A lot of people say I had trouble with this and trouble with that over there. You know what, I might have been a little trouble over there, but I don't think it was something worth being dropped over, I don't think he felt that way either. If you look around, He had to get rid of a few warm bodies.
MB: So it likely came down to a business decision then.
JJ: They were bringing in so many hit artists from Sony that they had to focus energy on; they had to shift up their game plan for how they do their business. I think at that particular time it didn't involve trying to grow new artists. He wouldn't have signed me just to drop me after one (single). He was kind of left no choice. After they signed me, that's when the merger happened. We went out and gave it our best shot. RCA did too. There's no hostile feeling there. Every time I see Joe, he walks up and asks me how I'm doing. We've got a lot of mutual respect.
MB: That's an interesting insight to the industry, right there.
JJ: You know, everything works out the way their supposed to anyway. The label I'm on now (Mercury), they give me the creative freedom to go in and make any record I want to make. They don't tell me no. If I want to put a song on my record, it's "Yes." I'm not gonna put a song on my record just to make someone mad, I put them on there because I feel like they represent where I've been in my life. At this time. This album, "That Lonesome Song" It's not a collection of songs. It's an album. It's just like a photo album, pictures of a time in your life from this point to that life. An album is a snapshot of my life of the past couple of years, in particular the last year and a half. That's something for me to be proud of. When I get old one day, I get to look back at that album and remember all those songs, all those feelings. I think each album should be like that. Certainly what they turn into to me. Looking back on my old albums is like looking at a photo book, remembering faces, who your friends were. That trip you took to the beach, Vegas, or whatever and you look at those pictures and just sit back and smile.
MB: I think music does that for everyone, I certainly get that feeling with "That Lonesome Song." How does it feel to have "In Color" on the radio right now?
It's great. It's incredible. That song was appropriate to be the first single because of that photo album record connection. I like the first song from this album in particular, stating off with looking through pictures with my grandfather. He died in 2000; I've got memories of him. He didn't know I was a songwriter or a singer. He just knew I could sing and write and that I was moving Nashville to get it done. He died probably the first 8 months that I was in town. I've always wanted to pay tribute back to thank him for the lessons growing up, all the conversations with him. Nobody ever pays attention to that stuff until they're gone I'm afraid. I had a long way to go, I wanted him to be around a lot longer, I wasn't ready for him to go. So it's kind of appropriate way to introduce this album to the public.
MB: So, you made most of your record by yourself originally, how did it feel to have the record picked up by Mercury?
JJ: We'd actually turned down two record deal offers that we'd gotten on the way. I just didn't want to go in and make a 'committee' album with people who don't know how to make records. They can't walk in the studio, grab a guitar, sit down and sing and get a song. They don't know what that takes. They can't walk on stage and connect with people, Get inside somebody's heart and make them care. If they can't do that, they can't be making decisions about songs on my album. What songs we're gonna be out playing at shows. I just felt like this next time if I was gonna go out there, Do it on my own. I'm not gonna hang any of that burden on anyone else's shoulders. I'm not gonna have anybody else to blame but me. If you like it, I did that. If you didn't, I still did that. If people don't like it, I'll go home and quit bothering people (laughs). But for right now it seems to be working out pretty good.
When I sat down to talk with (Universal Nashville President) Luke Lewis that day, the first thing he said to me was "I don't know what you're doing in that studio, and I don't care, just don't mess with that sound." I said "Hell, I came here to tell you that!" (Laughs again). Immediately I was just disarmed about the whole major record label thing. These guys had made me a lot of money by cutting my songs, that sort of thing, George Strait, Trace Adkins, guys like that. I've got a lot of respect for them.
I wouldn't want their job, (emphatically) I'm telling you. I would not want their job, I'd much rather have mine. Just like I don't want anybody coming in telling me how to make my record, how to write a song, which songs I should put on my record. I don't want to interfere with their job. I get done with my record, I hand it in to the boss, he gets out there selling it, and he gets his team wrapped around it, when they get to going, that's pure passion.
MB: Like Waylon and Willie did it.
JJ: I used to take my guitar out in the field with the marines, sit around and play them boys songs. We had the best time, just friends hanging around. There was no business. I'd just sing them songs I wrote or songs by Willie, Waylon, Don Williams or somebody like that. We’d sing those old cover songs, just had the best time. That's what playing songs for my label feels like today. These are just a bunch of boys and girls that just love country music and can't wait to hear some more. When I get done writing a song, they want to be the first to hear it. Just like my publisher and manager. It's pretty good to live in my world these days.
I loved your speech when you won the "Song of the year." It seemed honest and from the heart, which is what people want.
JJ: I just didn't see standing on that stage, holding that trophy, accepting an award for a song I wrote about our unfortunate divorce without giving her the credit for being the kind of woman she is. She's a great woman, still one of my best friends. Still there for me every time I need to call and just chat. Can’t find that too often. That's all I was trying to do; tell everybody "Hey we might've gotten a divorce but she's still great." I don't have anything bad to say about her. My child, my daughter, is proof that’s one incredible, classy woman.
MB: And that's what came across, to me, that you were being honest. It's that honesty that works in country music. People have a tendency to see through a fake artist pretty quickly.
JJ: You can never go wrong, coming out and just bearing your soul. You do that and they don't like it and they really think you're an asshole (laughing). I guess that runs its risk too...
MB: What song are you most proud of to have written?
JJ: That ain't a cool question. That's like asking a parent about their children. No, there's not one. I love being a writer, I'm a sucker for a good song, whether I wrote it or somebody else wrote it. Doesn't matter, I want to hear it. Good Old-school country music is what boils my blood. I can't get enough of that. They don't make enough.
MB: Especially nowadays, at least what's on the charts...
JJ: There are plenty of guys out there, there are too many of them to count. I'd really love to get a record in on one of my buddies that just got out of the studio. Hell, I just got out of the studio with the Oak Ridge Boys; they just cut one of my songs last night. I sat there and listened to that thing and damn near broke down in tears, man. I just love that stuff, that was one of the most magical things to me to get to sit there and watch guys I count as heroes go in and sing something that I wrote. Not only that, to hear their new record before anyone else, to look in the other room and see them singing. It's awesome. That's what makes it all extraordinary as a songwriter. There are still a lot of guys pumpin' out some great country. Shooter Jennings, Randy Houser.
MB: I like his single and the stuff he's written...
Randy's he's got his song kickin' up the charts right now, his new album coming out. Dallas Davidson, The third guy on Badonkadonk, has a song on the charts right now, "Put A Girl In It." I'm proud of all my buddies. Jarrod Niemann has a bunch of Garth Brooks cuts, Rob Hatch said the other day that Gretchen Wilson cut one of his songs. Wayd Battle has a song in the new Hannah Montana movie. When I look around and see my friends having success, it means the world to me, I'm proud of all of them.
MB: I'm sure they're like brothers to you...
JJ: Sure, in a lot of ways.
MB: You struggled at the same time...
JJ: Still. Just because you get a record deal doesn't mean your troubles go away (laughs). I'm glad they have my back.
MB: What are your thoughts on the internet and its role in music these days?
JJ: I don't really know what to think about it. For a lot of people it's the only way they get their music. I'm one of those too. Sometimes it's just easier to get on the internet to find that song or album you're looking for because it's quicker than driving all the way to Wal-Mart or some other store to find the album's out of stock. Even still you can get on Wal-Mart.com and you know it's gonna be on there. And the stuff you can't wait for, get up and go get it. That's what's cool about music in general. These days there are so many ways to go get it. If a song stirs you up, go and get it.
MB: What would you like to say to the folks reading that are reading this?
JJ: First of all, thank you for clicking on my name and wanting to read anything about me (laughs). If you like the songs come see a show. See the other way we get our message across. That's where we do our best work, on stage. The performance is the real deal, live music. Feel it. You're sitting out in front of that stage; drink in your hand, your baby by your side, all your buddies hanging around you. That's what music is. We're connecting to all these people, that's the cool thing, that's what music is to me.