√ BOB CERTIFIED (with reservations)
Jamey Johnson had a line on his last album that captured the spirit of the 1970s’ outlaw movement in country music better than anything since Willie and Waylon at their peak—the one about “the high cost of livin’ ain’t nothin’ like the cost of livin’ high.” Even if the other songs on the album were uneven, that line alone—when coupled with a gritty, don’t-mess-with-me-buddy vocal style—made Johnson seem more interesting than almost every other male country arrival in years. Now, he returns with an ambitious follow-up that you have to admire for its audacity. At a time when the record business is in chaos, Johnson releases a double album, which is a clever way to stand apart from the crowd and make everyone in the country music world take notice. In all the critical enthusiasm over Johnson, however, it is important to note that this double album suffers from the same weakness as almost every double album—it would have been much stronger as a single disc. For all his instincts as a writer, he is still hit-and-miss. There’s another classic line in the opening song “It might be lonely at the top, but it’s a bitch at the bottom.” Only this time, Johnson didn’t write it. (Credit for the 1986 tune goes to Don Cook, the late Keith Whitley and Chick Raines). Johnson did co-write (with Vicky McGehee and Bill Anderson) the killer title track and a few other winners: “That’s Why I Write the Songs” (with Chris DuBois and Ashley Gorley), the gospel-minded “I Remember You” (with Shane Minor) and “My Way to You” (with Charlie Midnight), but that’s far short of a double album’s worth. Thankfully, Johnson also has a good ear for cover songs so he is able to score points for his renditions of such tunes as Mel Tillis’ “Mental Revenge” (a hit in the 1960s for Waylon) and Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times.” In the mostly bland world of contemporary country music, you’ve got to root (hard) for Johnson, but he needs to work much harder on his songwriting before he can live up to the widespread acclaim. If he wants more covers, he might start with the catalogs of John Prine, Billy Joe Shaver, Guy Clark, Mickey Newbury and, of course, Kristofferson. He might also spend some time with a few classic John Anderson albums.