Jamey Johnson Biography
When he volunteered for the armed forces, he chose the toughest branch, the Marine Corps. When he did construction, he chose to work in the aftermath of disasters. When he was a laborer, he chose the dangerous job of operating a concrete saw deep in a manhole. And when he performs country music, he just about burns the honky-tonks down.
“I’ll do whatever it takes,” says Jamey Johnson. “No matter what the job, I’m going to get it done. I won’t let anybody out-work me. Once when I was recording song demo tapes, I sang 16 demos in one day. I didn’t have to, but if that’s what they wanted, I was going to make it work.
“The demand of this job is hard. The pace is tough. But I am built for this. I think that should be the work ethic of every new artist. Alabama worked hard, beating that pavement for their entire career. So did Garth Brooks. When Waylon Jennings went after it, he went hard. These guys, a lot of my heroes, didn’t do anything the easy way.”
Jamey Johnson is an intense musical personality, capable of both blazing honky-tonkers and heart-melting ballads. His baritone vocals seemed steeped in country tradition, yet his approach is often surprisingly contemporary.
His breakthrough hit single “The Dollar” is a good illustration of what he brings to a performance. Its lyric carries a moral message, but his authoritative, rough-edged delivery keeps the song from being overly sentimental. It could have been a soft ballad, but a pulsing backbeat drives it forward with startling urgency.
“I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as having a straight-up, traditional sound,” he says. “While I do love that, it ain’t all that I do. Our band can go from just burning the house down on a Hank Jr. song, and then two or three songs later, slow all the way down to a George Jones ballad. We have the ability to crank it up to 11 and then turn it down to soft and sweet.”
That is as it should be. The Alabama native with the pale, piercing blue eyes and biker beard is a study in contrasts. He’s deadly serious about his music, but has an outrageous sense of humor. He grew up in a household so religious that the hell-raising music of Hank Williams Jr. and Waylon Jennings weren’t permitted. So naturally, he went hog wild when he got the chance. He’s still a devout Christian, but he roars on Saturday nights.
Johnson’s backwoods upbringing was country to the core. Yet he is a formally trained musician who knew music theory as a junior-high student.
It is typical of this walking contradiction that he is on the charts as a co-writer of the Trace Adkins hit “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” but states pointedly, “Writing is not enough for me. I did not come here to be just a writer. I live to play.”
Music was born in Jamey Johnson. He was raised outside Montgomery, Alabama in a family that practically breathed melody.
“Everybody in my family plays or sings something. Daddy had such a passion for music. He directed us kids in the choir, growing up in churches. He got me in the band when I was in junior high school. I played anything brass. I was composing for the band when I was 13. I was arranging when I was in the 8th grade. I can read and write music fairly well. I pretty much knew music theory before I got to college.
“But my first instrument was the guitar. I picked it up when I was maybe 10. My Uncle Bobby taught me how to finger-pick “My Home’s in Alabama.” That’s the one I started with.”
Country music was always on the radio at home. His mother bought every Alabama album, and a concert by that group was the first show the youngster ever attended. Fellow Alabamans Hank Williams and Vern Gosdin were other family favorites.
“I’ll be honest with you: I was probably 13 years old before I realized people were born in other states than Alabama. We had a band named after ours. Who else can say that?”
For the first 14 years of his life, home was a trailer at the end of a long dirt road. By the time he got to the school bus, the boy’s shoes and clothes were already dirty. He never quite “fit in” with Montgomery’s wealthier and more popular kids. But being an outsider builds character, and that’s exactly what it did for Jamey Johnson.
He saved up enough money to buy his own guitar, an Epiphone he dubbed Old Maple. On Saturday nights, he and his friends would go to the grave of Hank Williams on the hill above Montgomery to drink beer and sing the legend’s songs. One night he dropped Old Maple on the tombstone and splintered its bottom. The instrument bears that scar to this day.
He began his singing career in the clubs of Montgomery. His father thought his son might become a music teacher or a band director. But after two years of college, Jamey abruptly quit school in 1994. For the next eight years he served in the Marine Corps Reserve and perfected his country singing style. The same week he was discharged, the rest of his unit was ordered to Iraq. Having served his apprenticeship in the honky-tonks of Alabama, Jamey Johnson decided to give Nashville a try. Planning the move was not his strong suit, however. Just about all he brought with him were some songs from a broken romance.
“I arrived on Jan. 1, 2000, Y2K Day. That was the day the planes were supposed to come crashing down and the computers were all going to be dead. I said, ‘Well, if the world is going to hell, I’m going to Nashville to sing about it.’ I had the dogs in the truck and everything I owned in the back of my old Dodge Ram. When I got here, I was flat broke. It cost every dime I had just to get me here.”
A friend who worked at CMT miraculously arrived on Jamey’s doorstep with a sack full of groceries on moving day. That was the first of many spirit-lifting encounters that the singer-songwriter would have in Music City.
He didn’t jump into that career right away. He took a job as a salesman for a sign company. Then he worked for an industrial pumping company. In 2001-2004 the couple ran their own construction firm, restoring places devastated by fires, hurricanes or tornados.
“I was a little stand-offish about the music,” he explains. “I don’t think I told anybody that I sang or wrote for the first 10 or 11 months I was in town. I just didn’t want to rush it. Eventually, I started singing at songwriter nights. ‘Networking,’ they call it. That’s how I met a lot of different writers. And as these friends got publishing deals, they started hiring me to sing their demos for them. The first one I ever did was a duet with Gretchen Wilson. Next thing you know, I’m making a good living off of demos. That’s when I decided I was going to get all in or all out.
“I met with a booking agent. He asked me what my goals were, and I point-blank put them on the table. I told him, ‘I’m not playing around. I’m not here to take a stab at it. I’m going to do it.’ So he would know how serious I am about this.”
Jamey Johnson found another soul who played an important role in his Nashville life when he met songwriter Randy Hardison. One of Hardison’s last acts before his 2002 murder was to put Jamey’s feet on the path to stardom.
“Randy came to me about two weeks before he died and told me that he’d heard this unbelievable guy at a writer’s night,” recalls producer/songwriter Buddy Cannon. “He was just raving about Jamey. Randy brought me a CD of Jamey’s songs, and it was really, really good. I was impressed with two things. The first one was his soulful voice, and the second was his raw songwriting talent. Jamey reminded me of the old days on Music Row. His songwriting was really original, not cookie cutter.
“Randy and I had been talking about producing somebody together. So he introduced me to Jamey, and we had a couple of meetings. Then during Randy’s hospitalization and the memorial service, Jamey and I got closer and closer. Not long after we met, I got him to sing some demos for me. Then I started taking him around to different record labels.
“I admire what he does. He’s a renegade and a honky-tonk hellion. This town needs the honesty in his music.”
Song publisher Gary Overton became the next believer. He signed Jamey to EMI Music and joined in the effort to land him a recording contract.
Buddy Cannon took Jamey Johnson to sing for BNA’s Joe Galante. Then he took him again. And again. Each time, the record-label executive liked what he heard. So even though he turned Jamey down six times, he always encouraged him to return. The seventh time was the charm.
Jamey recalls, “That seventh time I played in a conference room there at the record company for about a dozen folks and played five or six songs. I packed up my guitar, got in the elevator and was in the parking lot, like every other time. But what was different that time was Joe Galante, ran out and meet us by the car and offered me a deal right there.”
Johnson signed to BNA Records in April of 2005. It wasn’t long after, that he and producer Buddy Cannon were in the studio cutting songs for his debut album, The Dollar.
With the upcoming release of The Dollar, years of hard work and persistence pursuing “a dream,” are coming to reality. “This has been my dream since I picked up that first guitar when I was a kid. You know, Montgomery is only about 4 ½ hours from Nashville by car, but by guitar, it’s about 5 years.”