2008 Rewind: “In Color,” Jamey Johnson

jameyjohnsonJamey 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.

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10 Responses to 2008 Rewind: “In Color,” Jamey Johnson

  1. Couldn’t agree more here, Blake.

    This would be atop my list as well if ole Jim weren’t so stingy about the fact that this song actually was a 2007 release… ;) (Although, since it appeared on The 9513′s list last year, I understand not wanting to be repetitive.)

    Anywho, with “gem” songs like these, I sometimes hate when radio/TV ruins them by jamming them down our throats (see: “Believe” by Brooks & Dunn), but this one, I don’t ever get tired of seeing the video/hearing the song.

    I was grabbing a burger at a local fast food place in downtown Cary, NC yesterday and I watched as two guys – some kind of construction workers/painters – pulled up in a rusty old work truck and were crankin’ “In Color” on the radio. They waited out the rest of the song, mouthing the words, before getting out. That’s just the kinda song it is…

  2. Damn straight — nothing else came close all year. I feel compelled to point out, though, that it’s actually 4:51.

  3. Chris, the single version is 3:49, that’s the version I have from itunes. So that asks the question, on the album version, what happens in the extra minute?

    Great song, I guess I need to buy his album since I really like this song. I guess I’m just more hesitant to buy albums from male artists for some reason…

  4. lanibugNo Gravatar

    this happens to be probably one of my favorite songs in a long time and one of my favorite albums in a long time, there is something about the way that he tells the story of the pictures and even without the video you can see the pictures, that is what a great song is about being able to see what the singer is talking about

    I have gotten friends who are not country fans to listen to Jamey Johnson and they all are becoming fans — a friend I gave the album to has come to love him as much as I do and we will be seeing him in concert at the end of January in Columbus (i cannot wait!)

  5. BrianNo Gravatar

    Chris D.- The album version is just an extra minute of the guitar work gradually fading out. It does add to the song but it’s not essential to the song.

    Also with how the album is set up is bleeds right into the next song.

  6. I disagree with nearly everything you’ve said in this piece Blake (though it’s apparent you worked hard writing it and I appreciate that)

    this song is still way more Bon Jovi than it is Waylon Jennings

    and

    “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.”

    this is not reminiscent of classic country themes, it’s a boring and eye-rolling kind of story to tell, and to compare a song with this sentiment to Hank’s near nihilistic, absurdist, “You’ll never get out of this world alive” is crazy.

    but, I did enjoy your writing in this one.

  7. Leeann WardNo Gravatar

    I suppose we’ll all have to agree to disagree with you on this one, Ben. At least there aren’t any church bells.:)

  8. I do agree with Ben’s implication that the song isn’t as stone-cold traditional in composition as its trimmings (Alabama voice, spare production) might suggest, and the subject matter (and arguably thematic matter) of the song is a lot more ‘contemporary’ than classic; I’m no expert, so I could well be mistaken, but it seems to me that the use of this sort of ‘distant past-gazing’ (I hesitate to call it ‘nostalgia’ because it’s not necessarily positive here) as a narrative device was mostly absent from classic country, and I’d speculate that contemporary country probably learned it more from southern rock and folk/pop singer-songwriters.

    But I also like the song a great deal, although I think I interpret its major themes and implications differently than Blake does here. I’d go into all that, but I think I basically laid out my thoughts on it in my singles list, so I’ll leave it at that.

    In any case, it’s clear that you worked very hard on this piece, Blake, so kudos.

  9. The body of the song on the album ends at 4:32 (before the steel guitar noodling), so there must still be some nips and tucks on the single version.

  10. Also, I would posit that the reason “In Color” resonates so deeply is that it’s not actually about nostalgia — it’s about how no one human can ever completely understand the experiences of another, no matter how effectively they may be communicated. If the guy in the song could somehow show the narrator surround-sound 3-D HD video of the Great Depression or WWII he still wouldn’t really know how it felt to be there. We’re all strangers at some level, which is one of life’s most profound frustrations.

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