Single Review: Jamey Johnson, “Playing the Part”

Country boy, you got your feet in L.A. Again.

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

Grade: B-

Listen: Playing the Part

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15 Comments

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15 Responses to Single Review: Jamey Johnson, “Playing the Part”

  1. It’s SAT time!

    You : Jamey Johnson :: Me : Carrie Underwood.

    Personally, I would apply (and more or less have applied at various times) most of what you said about marketing, middling material, and pre-ordained legend status to Underwood before I would to Johnson, but I don’t disagree with the overall assessment at all, and I think you make a solid case here. Generally, I like Johnson’s material, but I do think that his image and his marketing can overpower his music.

    I say “generally” in regard to his material, because “Playing the Part” doesn’t really impress me much at all, and it doesn’t make me all that optimistic for The Guitar Song. And I think this review is spot-on in outlining what doesn’t work about the single. I know it’s heresy in some circles to cast doubt on Jamey Johnson, but no one should get a free pass on name or image alone. Nicely done, as usual!

  2. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar

    I actually agree with you regarding Underwood. I’ve never really made big statements about her significance beyond noting that I believe she’s the finest female vocal talent to come along in the genre since Trisha Yearwood. (Which is a compliment, but not a huge one, really.)

    I don’t think that Underwood has been trumpeted as an artist for the ages by the press, though. She’s just sold a lot of records and won a lot of awards. While she hasn’t lasted nearly as long as these women yet, I see her on the Olivia Newton-John/Crystal Gayle/Anne Murray path, making music that appeals to a wide berth of casual record buyers that is offensive only in its inoffensiveness, if that makes sense.

    Sure, she could easily have her last hit tomorrow, or develop into an album artist for the ages, but the three albums so far have been radio-friendly songs sung well, with a few great songs sprinkled among them.

    There’s a larger tendency right now to make people the next incarnation of legends. Remember when Gretchen Wilson was the next Loretta Lynn?

    Jamey Johnson may very well be the next Waylon Jennings, but Waylon Jennings wasn’t even Waylon Jennings this early in his career, and he didn’t have a blueprint to work with, either.

    I liken it to those who always believe that they’re living in the End Times. It’s not because things are so bad, so much as because they want to feel that their era is more important than it is because they’re a part of it.

    We won’t actually know who the most significant artists are of our time until our time has passed. We don’t get bonus points for guessing correctly in advance, and we’re just as likely to be the next Paul Grein: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,961982-2,00.html

  3. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar

    Spot-on review.

  4. I would have expected a laudatory review for Jamey Johnson, but I can see why that was not the case. I hear a lot of people proclaiming Jamey Johnson the savior of traditional country music, but all I will say is that he is definitely one to watch. He’s not there yet, but the potential he has shown thus far suggests that his artistic peak (and hopefully his commercial peak) is yet to come.

  5. It’s interesting and good to read a different perspective on this song, since I’ve only mostly been reading praise for it so far. You’ve made your case very well.

    I do like the new album, but I haven’t yet listened to it with enough focused attention to know if I like it better than That Lonesome Song.

  6. I guess we disagree fairly fundamentally here. While I would agree that it’s too premature to call Jamey a legend (though has anyone?) I really do think That Lonesome Song was a masterpiece, which stands comparison with anything from the past. And although this song is not as good as the songs on that album, the tone does feel convincing to me.

  7. Tara SeetharamNo Gravatar

    I’m with you on this one, Kevin. Great review.

  8. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar

    “While I would agree that it’s too premature to call Jamey a legend (though has anyone?)”

    I don’t think anyone has called him a full-fledged legend yet, but as the review said, he has had a lot of “second coming of [X legend – usually Waylon]” titles thrust upon him. One example off the top of my head: the latest Nashville Scene Critics Poll calls him the answer to “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” and places him on “Country Music’s Mt. Rushmore of the Future” (along with Brad Paisley, Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift) – all based on nothing but That Lonesome Song. Which was a great album, I agree, but a lot of artists never make it past one great album.

  9. Yes, Dan’s right. While he hasn’t been called a legend specifically, there have definitely been broad statements made about his likelihood of becoming one. I do think that such statements can’t be made based on one album, since his first album certainly was not a masterpiece and I’m not sure that his third one will be either. I like That Lonesome Song a lot, but it does, itself, have some shortcomings.

  10. “a lot of artists never make it past one great album.”

    I certainly agree there ;).

  11. There have been many, many people who have called Jamey Johnson the ‘savior’ of country music in places all over the internet (or in real-life conversaitons). I’m always surprised by this because I don’t think any genre needs a ‘savior.’ I also think it’s amazing at some of the apathy “fans” of Jamey seem to be having to other really country releases. If they truly love country music, they’d make sure that a record like Marty Stuart’s “Ghost Train” would get just as much commercial love as any Jamey Johnson record does.

  12. I agree, the genre doesn’t need a savior, it needs a lot of saviors.:)

    I’m being flippant, but I do think that, recently, the trajectory of country music may be positively shifting ever so slightly and that’s a good thing, because the last few years have been pretty brutal.

  13. MikeNo Gravatar

    Jamey Johnson attempts to put out a country song, much-less an entire album. He earns points for at least keeping the country part down and not being like all the other rockstars and pop artists in country music today. So he earns something for attempting something in the right direction.

    Unfortunately, what he is attempting is a tired and tread storyline. However, I think Johnson does a good job with the theme at hand. While it’s not creating something fresh, it’s something that at least makes you want to return (in general I would think) for a second listen.

  14. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar

    It’s all very same script, different cast to me. Since country started crossing over again in the later nineties, we’ve been hearing about new artists who are going to make country music country again.

    Lee Ann Womack. Dixie Chicks. Brad Paisley. Joe Nichols. Gretchen Wilson. Jamey Johnson. Probably a few that I’m forgetting.

    Most of the above either moved away from traditional country music or didn’t maintain their initial popularity. Paisley has been the only one to still be doing the original style of country that made him famous and also having success with it.

    It’s still way too early with Johnson to know what will happen. Maybe he’s going to be an album artist a la Alison Krauss and will sell gold with or without radio help. Or maybe “In Color” is the only reason anybody bought the last album, and he needs a breakaway hit to match the success of his last set.

    I wouldn’t chisel that Mount Rushmore just yet, unless you want to use any of a good dozen and a half of nineties artists that are better than those four artists.

  15. Jeff Keene JrNo Gravatar

    I’ve read all these comments and I have to say, it’s refreshing to see music fans that can look at music in perspective. I agree with most of what has been said here.
    As far as my opinion of Jamey, I think he’s got as much potential as anyone has in a long time. He got his roots plantied firmly in the writing world before he got a real break at performing. That’s one of the things that impress me most about him, and I think that is going to be his best asset. He has made connections with some very good writers and establised artists. He also has a unique sound. His words flow throughout the songs, and fit the melodies he puts them to. In my mind he has all the tools. He has a full enough sound, his lyrics are real enough to connect with the moat hardcore country fans without being too explicit and “redneck” for the casual country fan. He also has the range to pull off the slow songs, drinking songs, and even a little bit of a rough side (I.e. Redneck side of me). Obviously I am a huge fan his music has touched me and really connected with things that have happened in my life, but I do have to agree it is a little early to crown him the “cowboy Christ”.
    Country music does need a savior, granted it is going to take alot morethan one talented redneck to end the corperate pollution that country has embraced today. Not even Waylon or Willie or even Cash did what they did by themselves. I think there is hope though, as long as we have real passionate singers like Johnson, Shooter Jennings, Lambert, and Paisley there will be a president for others to follow and that will be key. I love real country… the sound, the heart, the lyrics, the pride, and everything that goes with it.
    On a side note I think another interesting artist to watch will be Eric Church. He’s a little rock heavy but he has a country foundation and his lyrics are well written (with the exception of “homeboy”, it’s a good story and idea I just think using homeboy in a country song is too cheesy). I enjoyed reading these posts.