Jamey Johnson keeps country on stage, not in the recording studio

A. I think what’s happened between mainstream country and me is pretty mutual. I don’t feel included in anything they do. I’m somehow happy in country music, and I don’t buy into the idea that the country music industry owns that term. They don’t, and so they can’t define it either, because they define it by leaving out artists like me. You can’t define country music and leave out artists like me.

Q You’ve been invited to join a country music institution, the Grand Ole Opry, this year. What was your reaction to that? And what does it mean to you to be a member of the Opry?

A. Hope. It is inclusion. I did not expect that. I’m so used to being left out. It was a little weird at first. It made me lose my balance. I love being a member of the Grand Ole Opry and in many ways I still don’t feel like I fit in.

Q You’ve released a few singles and collaborative recordings over the past few years, but it’s been a while since you’ve released an album. Is it something that’s in the cards?

A. The career pressure on an artist to keep reproducing the same kind of success, I don’t want to feel that pressure. I’m a touring artist and songwriter, and that’s what pays my bills, so that’s what I focus on the most. If once in a while I can walk into a writing room and have a song written, I’m happy and thrilled, especially when it becomes a hit for someone else. If it’s a song that I like enough, I can put it on my show too. In many ways, my gig became my new outlet for releasing new music.

Q So, the main outlet for your creative energy is live performance.

A. That’s what I’m doing right now. This may change. When COVID took us off the road for an entire year, I thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity not to have to tour, maybe I’ll write songs. Maybe I’ll go into the studio and record. Nope [laughs]. Nothing like that happened. I came home and read about 50 books in a few months, and I was done with that and I thought, man, obviously my brain wants something to challenge it. So I immediately started working on a pilot’s license. I spent the rest of the lockdown gathering hours for this.

Q One of the most striking things about your shows is the care and respect you have for former country music artists.

A. You can start by asking some young people in country music if they’ve ever heard names like Keith Whitley or Vern Gosdin. It’s surprising how many people haven’t, but that makes it even more important to cover them up and keep pointing fingers and saying, “Man, if you like this, this is from here. .” You go ahead and say to yourself, OK, Johnny Cash is gone, so maybe there’s someone out there every night who has never heard Johnny Cash before. So let me introduce you to Johnny Cash. Let me direct you to Waylon Jennings, Johnny Paycheck. I love playing my own songs, and that’s true, but I don’t think I’ll ever do a full set of my own songs. This is not the horse I rode on.

Q However, you don’t just read carbon copy versions of the originals. You put your own stamp on it.

A. If I was more skilled, maybe I would be able to do them exactly [laughs]. Sometimes we don’t play the version we heard, we play the way it made us feel when we first heard it. It’s different. I don’t play “Big River” like I heard Johnny Cash play it. I play her the way she made me feel when I first heard her play it. I felt like stomping on the accelerator pedal and maybe driving a little too fast with my head out the window. I felt like I was in this chase, chasing this woman down this river, and then coming to the end of the river to find that she was gone anyway. So we act out our emotions instead of what is written.

The interview has been condensed and edited.


At the Indian Ranch, 200 Gore Road, Webster. October 8 at 1 p.m. $49.50. 508-943-3871. www.indianranch.com

Stuart Munro can be reached at [email protected]

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