When: Fri., Feb. 8, 8:30 p.m. 2013
Jamey Johnson is one of Nashville’s most unlikely stars—a long-haired, bearded, scruffy-looking shitkicker in a world of clean-cut cowboys. He tops the charts with unapologetically stark songs whose dark lyrics make the excesses described by outlaw-country stars such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson seem almost quaint, and he has a clear-eyed understanding of where that kind of wild behavior leads. I’ll never tire of quoting his song “High Cost of Living,” which ends with the couplet, “I had a job and a piece of land and my sweet wife was my best friend / But I traded that for cocaine and a whore.” The stormy, hard-rocking original music on his two most recent studio albums breaks with modern-day country orthodoxy, but not as radically as the hard-core traditionalism of his latest album. On Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran (Mercury), a rousing 16-track salute to one of Nashville’s best songwriters, Johnson is joined by a roll call of past and present country stars (including Nelson, Alison Krauss, Merle Haggard, George Strait, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, and Lee Ann Womack), and proves that he not only knows his history but also has the voice to pull off classic honky-tonk numbers and ballads. The album includes inescapable classics (Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces,” Johnny Paycheck’s “A-11,” and the Ray Price weeper “Make the World Go Away,” here a tear-jerking duo with Krauss) alongside obscure songs, and they’re all distinguished by Cochran’s witty, empathetic lyrics. Johnson is clearly striving for similar greatness, and though he’ll probably never match the master’s poetic touch, he’s learning fast. This superb diversion from Johnson’s own music makes a strong case for his versatility and depth—and it’s a blast to listen to. Tonight Johnson’s set will be mostly originals, but he’ll sing a handful of Cochran tunes. —Peter Margasak Chris Hennessee opens.