August 21, 2010
The country boy as fish out of the water in Los Angeles. Or New York. Or Detroit. It’s a pretty common theme in country music. Jamey Johnson does his own spin on this theme with his new single, “Playing the Part.” It’s not terribly bad, but it’s not terribly good, either. “Big City” certainly doesn’t have to worry about losing its slot on the Waffle House Jukebox.
Despite a busy little beat, Johnson remains only a step above lethargic. His “Randy Travis 45 on 33 1/3 speed” vocal delivery worked for the slowly revealing lyrics of “In Color” and “High Cost of Living.” But it lets him down here. Even the addiction reference feels obligatory, with Johnson repeating the “pills’ and “Hollywood hills” rhyme that worked much better on Faith Hill’s “When the Lights Go Down.”
That record worked because Hill actually sounded like someone who could have known someone in L.A. who’d gone down that road. Johnson’s got a gold album under his belt and has won a few awards, but it’s a stretch to picture him as a country boy who went chasing fame and fortune in California and is now collapsing under the weight of his success.
It was a stroke of marketing brilliance for Johnson to package himself as a modern-day Outlaw, making it far easier for him to reach a targeted demographic that would eagerly embrace him. Lord knows they’re going to eat these limited editions up like Taylor Swift fans blew their Sweet Sixteen money on this.
But he’s yet to really demonstrate that he could be the second coming of Waylon Jennings or Willie Nelson. Right now, he’s got a shot at being a modern-day Gary Stewart or Mel Street, but he’s going to need better material than this to get there.
Like so much of country music today, and pop for that matter, the marketing and media campaigns are dramatically outpacing the development of the music. Artists who have an album or two under their belt are being heralded as the new incarnation of legends with thirty-year careers. It’s an insult to the legends and an unfair burden to place on artists that are still honing their craft.
Because in the end, the hype will die down and the music is all we’ll be left with. I’d love to see Johnson become the traditional country legend that he’s been prematurely ordained, but he’s barely out of the starting gate, and I don’t see him getting much further down the road with material like this.
Written by Jamey Johnson and Shane Minor
Listen: Playing the Part