Jamey Johnson’s “In Color” is the greatest country song of 2008. There’s no quantifiable evidence to support the argument, and in terms of artistic validity, beauty’s in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it? But “In Color” lives up to the title; it’s not the feel-good story of the year, but it’s oddly humbling and heartwarming, all in a nice, neat four-minute package.
Johnson penned the epic ballad with rising star James Otto and Nashville songwriter, Lee Thomas Miller. In three-verse perfection, they play out a high-detail performance that eerily echoes our difficult times. “In Color” is a broadly applicable song, with the themes of economic hardships, wartime efforts and everlasting love all wrapped around a simple, understated chorus. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.
Country songs, or at least the really mainstream ones, aren’t rigged for regular Joes anymore, and especially the cockeyed pessimists of the bunch. But you can just imagine Joe in some two-bit tavern, sitting there transfixed, getting drunk on Johnson’s gravelly growl and his fascinating stories. This is a hard scene for some Music Row handlers to conjure up, but one that’s nonetheless vital to the survival of the art form.
Johnson outmaneuvers his contemporaries, supplying sure truths with his grainy, down-to-earth mumblings. He borrows from the rich patchwork of traditional country, specifically tailoring his music to fit his ruggedly winsome voice. A lightly-strummed guitar, an absolutely masterful steel lick accenting the chorus and Johnson’s convincing star turn help lift “In Color” to unexpected heights. His is not an antiquated approach, thankfully, but one that’s now buried deep within Nashville’s famous 16th Avenue.
To use a hoary cliche, that’s where the magic happens. Or happened. Lately, that gilded street resembles an auto assembly line; Music City has rivaled Motor City in both its production and its cheerless results. Instead of inspiring people to a higher purpose, country music is slowly becoming code for “consumable product.” Without a bailout plan, Music Row practitioners are rubbing sticks together, trying to build a fire that a declining audience can’t deny.
The remaining listeners have taken their medicine from country radio (patriotism and religion are the choice prescriptions), and now they’ve rebelled in making “In Color” a smash. Its commercial success (currently a top ten single on Billboard’s hit parade) dismantles the notion that Nashville’s target audience is unapproachable. They’re willing to be engaged, not by a thirty-second Old Navy commercial or the witless dialogue of on-air “personalities”, but by an old-fashioned country song that catches their fancy. Johnson, applying a soothing salve to an increasingly insecure world, stays true to the tenets of country music, both in word and in deed. His gruff delivery bespeaks a certain softness that marks all the great lyrical poets of popular music.
What makes “In Color” such a terrific song is that it documents the life of a “mature” man, not a grinning teenybopper or a guileless sycophant, but a well-worn survivor. (Cue Hank Williams’ “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”) Now, a little dash of youthful optimism is all well and good, but bubble-gum glee has its limits.
When Wynonna Judd pleaded, “Grandpa, tell me ’bout the good ‘ol days,” this isn’t the response she would’ve wanted. She longed for a confirmation of her ideals without the gritty truth behind them. With “In Color,” an elder is threading the needle between photographs to tell an inquiring grandson his life story, warts and all.
The sage starts by pointing at a picture of himself as an eleven-year-old, flanked by his brother and fighting like mad to loosen the grips of the Great Depression. Later, he served as a soldier in World War II; matched with high school teacher Johnny McGee, he “can almost see (his) breath” staring at a portrait of the pair. How the cold wintertime of 1943 can be called “the middle of hell” is a juxtaposition that’s justified here.
The final verse is the most affectionate. A print of the man’s wedding day, with his beautiful bride (“that rose was red, and her eyes were blue”) glowing under a hot summer sun, proves that the sacrifices were well made. “Just look at that smile,” he says, mustering up all the pride that a man possibly can. Here, the listener comes to a reasonable conclusion: If he had his druthers, he would’ve done it all again. What “In Color” represents is a loving remembrance of life’s twists and turns (along with the human connection that serves as our catalyst) and how our greatest troubles often serve as our greatest lessons.
Long after Music Row has sussed out the pretenders (Goodbye, American Idol flunkies! Adios, pop music has-beens!), long after the watered-down country-pop trend has tuckered out, Johnson, that crafty insurrectionist, will remain. And “In Color” will be viewed as the perfect example of a remarkable raconteur and his prodigious talent.