December 26, 2008
Music Row preaches positivity, but a pair of Nashville’s heartbreaking best sang the blues this year
Songs of solitude are the lifeblood of country music; loneliness has spawned a slew of classics. Hank Williams measured his pain when, inspired by marital discord, he wrote “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” In George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a man pines for a former flame until death becomes him. And with her country-pop standard, “Crazy,” Patsy Cline pled insanity as a result of unrequited love.
The pathos-plagued singers of the past recorded songs that soothed their own discomfort while serving as sweet elixir for listeners in the midst of their own miseries. Bent on survival, these timeless artists transferred hurt into heartrending performances.
Conventional logic now holds that such despair would upset the daily rhythm of Music Row. The feel-good anthems that now filter through country radio have signaled the end of sadness at the forefront of the format.
Today’s hit list is one big morale booster. A torrent of sugar water pours through the airwaves, drowning out the drama that made country music such an essential, eternal art.
But Jamey Johnson and Lee Ann Womack ignored popular trends and paid tribute to their roots by contributing to the canon of sorrowful songs this year. In September, the pair performed a twin bill at New York City’s Lincoln Center, and the partnership was a match made in heartache heaven. Their brand of country features barroom laments and plaintive ballads, songs that shed further light on the strong grip of isolation. In an industry littered with pretty ingénues and high-spirited hat-acts, Johnson and Womack, with their gloriously gloomy music, give listeners a brief break from the mindless uplift.
Johnson arrived in Nashville on January 1, 2000, and he soon found work singing demos that landed in the hands of Trace Adkins and Hank Williams, Jr., among others. In 2005, he signed a publishing deal and a record contract with EMI. But Johnson’s first flirtation with success ended shortly after his debut album, The Dollar, hit the shelves in spring 2006. His four-year marriage dissolved, his record label disbanded and he rented out a friend’s basement to focus on his songwriting.
Johnson bounced back from those twin blows by self-releasing That Lonesome Song, a disc that served as personal, poetic redemption, and eventually piqued the interest of Mercury Nashville, who signed Johnson to a new contract and reissued it this summer. Channeling Waylon Jennings, Johnson exercises his black magic on music that reveals the doubt shoved deep inside him. These are flawed performances in the best sense, songs that build strength out of the raw material of disaster.
A masterful bit of three-act storytelling, the album’s first single, “In Color,” recounts the harsh realities of the Great Depression and World War II as a grandfather examines his youth through black-and-white photos. His brother, an Army buddy and eventually, his wife, are all forms of life support, and he shrugs and says they were “just tryin’ to save each other” during the darkest times.
But on That Lonesome Song, Johnson’s busy just trying to save himself. His highway-to-hell attitude is best exuded through “High Cost of Living,” where a self-loathing binge ends in a dark jail cell. In his dourest hour, Johnson is an empty husk of a man, a state of being that even loose women (“Mary Go Round”) and cheap booze (“That Lonesome Song”) can’t shake.
The album closes with an emphatic parting shot, “Between Jennings and Jones,” an autobiographical account of Johnson’s lonely trek through countless honky-tonks to jumpstart his musical career. Johnson enjoys the fruits of his labor (“Now to find me in a record store won’t take you long,” he crows.) while honoring the heroes that inspired his zealous pursuit. In the end, he’s won a hotly contested battle with his demons, but only just.
Lee Ann Womack mines much of the same territory. On her new disc Call Me Crazy, Womack includes the haunting tome, “I Think I Know,” written by Tom Shapiro, Mark Nesler and Tony Martin. The song revolves around three country legends, all of whom succumbed to the ghosts that taunted them.
“I Think I Know” offers that June Carter’s passing drove the last nail in Johnny Cash’s coffin, that Hank Williams’ final moments were filled with startling emptiness and that Keith Whitley’s alcohol addiction stemmed from a long-standing grief. Womack sums up Whitley’s whiskey-soaked demise with a chilling verdict: “Even with success, there was a sad loneliness.”
Womack has admitted to her own bouts of withdrawl. Brimming with confidence after the triple-platinum success of I Hope You Dance, she embarked on a detour into pop-country. When Something Worth Leaving Behind arrived in 2002, both recordbuyers and critics blanched at its glossy production.
Womack quickly reversed course, exploring her love for traditional sounds on the terrific There’s More Where That Came From, 2005’s CMA Album of the Year and a staple on many of the year’s best-of lists. Yet again, her triumphs were followed by a fit of artistic insecurity. She recorded an entire album, only to shelve it and start anew, and some questioned whether Womack would return to prominence. Call Me Crazy, then, comes as a welcome surprise.
Blending traditional sounds with modern impulses, Womack recorded a set of smart, gutsy tunes that ring with urgency and real honest-to-goodness heartache. Call Me Crazy is one long, lonesome serenade. Some sob, and some just shed a single tear, but the songs cry out with lingering doubt and a lot of late-night drinking. Womack’s full-throated wailing shows an absolute mastery of the subject matter; a trio of tear-your-heart-out songs set the tone.
“Last Call” is the pick of the litter. The booty-call ballad sees Womack unleashing the full brunt of her annoyance on a sorry ex, loneliness be damned. She articulates ambivalence on “Either Way,” a cold reflection of a loveless marriage. And sounding loose and confident, she shows her abiding distrust in romantic liaisons on “Solitary Thinkin’” (..“and lonesome drinkin’”).
Just as often, she submits to the solitude. Womack imbues “Have You Seen That Girl” with a world-weary manner (“Where along the way did I lose me?”), prays for heavenly intervention on “If These Walls Could Talk,” and when she sings about the “King of Broken Hearts,” it sounds as if she is the queen. Where Johnson, worn out by his exertions, growls with a musty, robust tone that expresses indifferent surrender, Womack warbles with her crystal-clear soprano, staving off depression for one last brief moment before she succumbs.
Differences aside, Johnson and Womack are the year’s standard bearers of sadness; the pair steer clear of the lighter side of life, at least on record. Both staunchly resist the urge to blunt the edges of their sharp-toothed tragedies. And for fans of unvarnished country music, that’s something to be happy about.