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Jamey Johnson Brings ‘Outlaw’ Originals, Classic Covers To A Packed Joe’s Bar In Chicago

Jamey Johnson

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In today’s country landscape, Jamey Johnson stands out as an anomaly. He’s had hit radio singles, has a strong fan base, and can regularly sell out clubs–as he did Friday night at Joe’s Bar in Chicago. But in spirit and in sound, he’s far closer to traditional country than just about any artist working today.

Critical acclaim for his recent albums, including 2010’s The Guitar Song and 2012’s GRAMMY-nominated Hank Cochran tribute Living for a Song, has been rock solid. And when he launched into staples from his repertoire such as “High Cost of Living,” “Can’t Cash My Checks,” “Lonely at the Top,” and “That Lonesome Song,” the packed crowd at Joe’s Bar on Friday knew every word and chord change.

Johnson first earned acclaim as a songwriting, cowriting “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” for Trace Adkins and, even more notably, penning “Give It Away,” which became a Number One for George Strait. Johnson also then had a Top Ten hit of his own with “In Color,” a touching, powerful song that centers around a man telling his grandson about his experiences growing up. It won Song of the Year at the ACMs in 2009 and was also nominated for a GRAMMY.

Since then, though, Johnson has not had much radio airplay. But that’s not a problem, as despite the dearth of radio exposure he’s managed to find a strong and stable audience among country fans on the outskirts of the mainstream.

People often call Johnson a modern-day ‘outlaw,’ a reference to the 1970s-era sound of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. And that description is relatively close to the mark, as Johnson’s songs do tread similar turf, with their introspective lyrics and arrangements that can shift deftly from quiet moments to hearty rhythms with big, burly beats (a style that defined much of Waylon’s signature sound).

“That Lonesome Song,” for instance (the title track to Jamey’s breakthrough album from 2008), starts out quietly, then builds into something stronger, exhibiting each one of those elements. It may not have worked as a radio single, but on album–and especially live–it’s a powerhouse.

Dressed in a black T-shirt, his hair and beard longer than ever, Johnson played for an astounding 2-1/2 hours at Joe’s Friday night.

Jamey Johnson at Joe's Bar in Chicago (Photo by Kurt Wolff/Radio.com)
Jamey Johnson and band at Joe’s Bar in Chicago (photo by Kurt Wolff/Radio.com)

He was backed by an impressive group of seven well-seasoned musicians — two percussionists, two guitarists, plus pickers on steel, keyboards, and bass. They covered many of Jamey’s key songs–leading with “High Cost of Living”; running through “Can’t Cash My Checks,” “Mowing Down the Roses,” and “Cover Your Eyes”; then wrapping up “In Color” and the crowd-pleasing “Give It Away.”

Half the night’s set, though, included an impressive range of cover songs, which Jamey and company dealt out like the world’s finest roadhouse band. Their repertoire leaned Southern, rugged, and traditional, with classics from Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, the Allman Brothers, Alabama, and Keith Whitley peppering the set all night long. One of the night’s true highlights, in fact, was a knockout version of “Turn the Page,” giving the Bob Seger standard a brilliant new shine.

Jamey curiously didn’t include much from his beautiful Hank Cochran tribute album, which was just released last fall. He did, though, play one–a super-slow take on “I Fall to Pieces,” which Hank wrote with Harlan Howard (it was a Number One for Patsy Cline in 1961). And to be fair, he covered a huge  range of territory during the show.

Jamey proved a man of few words–he didn’t address the the crowd until well after the first hour, and then just with a simple “Hi” and a wave. But the fans didn’t expect a soliloquy. They were there for the songs, the picking, and Jamey’s rich baritone voice. And they left more than satisfied. After all, there aren’t many singers in any genre working today–from either the mainstream or its distant fringes–who can bring this much strength, passion, honesty, and soul to the stage.

- Kurt Wolff, Radio.com

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