That Lonesome Song is the disc that music industry executives will spin when they leave a day’s work of selling the music of the latest flash-in-the-pan. It is the record that disc jockeys and radio programmers will enjoy in the late-night quiet of their own homes. And it is quite simply one of the best country albums to be made this decade. Befitting an album of understatement and sincerity, the only words to use are: Simply brilliant.
Johnson demands the listener’s attention on each track; without it, mistakes will be made. You will miss his admission of blame in “Women”, an otherwise humorous, detailed description of his dealings with the fairer sex. Allow “Mary Go Round”, the story of a woman’s moral compass gone mad, to fade into the background, and it is easy to overlook the fact that Johnson could be singing of his own lost innocence. The many layers of these songs come unraveled with repeated listenings.
The template for That Lonesome Song is the music of Waylon Jennings. Although Johnson writes or co-writes most of his material, two covers emerge on the album, the oft-recorded “Dreaming My Dreams” and the terrific “The Door is Always Open”, a man’s gentle request of a former flame to seek comfort with him when she’s unable to find it at home.
The deepest, darkest track is also the best. “High Cost of Living” is the story of drugs, desperation and the dangers with living on the edge. He confesses that “My life is just an old routine/every day the same damn thing/hell, I can’t even tell if I’m alive” while telling of a life spent mostly in a church parking lots, a cheap motel and drinking away the pressures of his nine-to-five. By the end, he’s strayed from his woman, he’s stayed in a prison, and he‘s weighed the option of life as a 9-to-5 existence for little pay and little praise, saying that this life’s high cost “ain’t nothing like the cost of living high”. Country radio would never touch the song, but it does touch the listener more than most would admit.
Being numb to the pain is a common thread in quite a few of these songs, but Johnson feels, he believes, he knows. On tracks such as “When the Last Cowboy‘s Gone” and “Sending an Angel to Hell”, he chronicles the torture and the torment that is brought to a boil all too often, singing in the latter, “the line between evil and good disappears“ in the wake of heartache and grief. But though he is self-destructive at many turns, he is also self-aware, acknowledging his sins and struggles throughout. At least a few points of light are evident and come as some relief, such as in “Mowing Down the Roses”, his wry and witty take on a dying love, and of course, “Women”, an ode to the give-and-take of most relationships.
Johnson’s voice is by no means perfect, much like the man, but it is perfectly suited to these tales of trials, tribulations and the occasional triumph over the world and himself. The first single from That Lonesome Song, “In Color”, is receiving recognition for its terrific account of man’s life fully lived. Let’s hope Johnson lives a full, but also satisfying life in the years to come. His gutsy, gritty story is one worth telling.