When it comes to curating a sound of traditional country music, Jamey Johnson has made a name for himself in the music community. It has been over 17 years that he landed in Nashville after living his life running the music circuit throughout Alabama and Georgia. The journey has taken him on major stages, but also smaller intimate settings that are perfect for the listener to take in all that is being sung through the soul of Jamey Johnson.
This past weekend, Jamey Johnson performed for a double night stay at Renfro Valley Entertainment Center. Having performed at the venue for many years now, it and the fans have formed a special bond thanks to the power of music
Prior to his show, I had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Jamey Johnson over his journey, as well as personal encounters, stories behind songs, and more. Below is that conversation and I hope that you enjoy reading it. Be sure to check out Jamey Johnson’s website for future concert dates and music at www.jameyjohnson.com.
Kentucky Country Music: You have developed a pretty strong fanbase in Kentucky over the years. However, out of all of the venues, you always come back to Renfro Valley Entertainment Center. What makes this place special for you?
Jamey Johnson: The first time I played Renfro Valley, I didn’t know anything about the history of it. I didn’t know anything about it at all, but after I got done with the show that night I knew it was different. It was different from just about everywhere else we would play. I don’t know to what degree is more so, but the fans were just so welcoming and attentive of what we were playing and respectful. Over the years, I think fans in general have just become that way with me more so at the different venues too, but at that time it was a little more uncommon than you know. Most of the places we would play with big crowd, but the crowd that came that night, they were good to us. I don’t mean insinuate that anybody else was any less enthusiastic about what we were doing. It was just different. I don’t know how to tell you.
It was just more of a family type environment. It reminded me of living rooms when I was growing up. We played guitar in the living rooms of the church members. I remember us going to one of the Deacon’s houses where my Sunday School teachers and Kindergarten teacher were all gathered around. We’d break out guitars and play music; and afterwards or in between, we’d have dinner. Everybody bring a covered dish and that sort of thing. Those kinds of deal just got to be so big after a while and it that was fun to be a part of. I think that’s what Renfro Valley felt like to me after that first show.
I went outside by the merch stand and stood there for hours while people came by. And not just to get autographs and take pictures, but to tell us how much they loved us and that sort of thing. It was really touching. It kind of came on my radar just from that. Over the years, I’ve learned more about its history and just how close it is for me.
And some of the things that I found out about it is that at one point it was owned by Willie Nelson and Hank Cochran and I think Ray Price. Hank Cochran and Jeannie Seely got married here. Yeah there’s a little bit of history that connects me to it even more. When they changed out the road signs back here at the RV camp there’s it one of the roads is called Hank Cochran Way. They brought me the old sign, so now I got that sign hanging in my studio in Nashville.
I remember that show. I have been to quite a few concerts, but that was the first time I saw people stop in their tracks when you came out to sing Kneel at the Cross in the encore. There was something about the energy in the room that you cannot describe, but it was a special night indeed.
It was incredible. It definitely got my attention.
Since the last time you performed at Renfro Valley, you have undergone some band changes and additions. Tell me more about who you have on hand these days.
My oldest standing band member would be Cowboy Eddie Long. Cowboy and I started working together in 2005. I guess my second oldest would have to be Mark Crum. He joined our band in 2009 and because none of the rest of the guys would take a job, we made Mark our band leader. He was the new guy and came in as the band leader.
Chris Hennessee and I met in 2000 in Nashville. I had first moved to town January 1st of 2000 and within a few months, I was down on lower Broadway getting a lay of the land and kinda seeing what it was all about down there. He had a house gig at Tootsie’s and another one at Legend’s Corner. Every time I’d walk in, well the first time I had to ask, “can I sit in and do a song?” They were having so much fun, I wanted to get up there and join in. Every time after that, I’d walk in the door and he’d recognize me right off and invite me up to sing. It was completely against the protocol down there that day. None of them guys wanted you to come in and take their stage for fear that you’d end up with their gig. Headhunters was a real thing going on Lower Broadway, and probably still is today. There’s always somebody better coming in the door looking to get your gig willing to do it for free. So it was a really different attitude that he took. He wasn’t afraid of that. He was just real good at what he did, so I never forgot that. Later on, I found myself needing a guitar player and he found himself needing a gig. He was fresh off a publishing deal that was paying him some salary and so he needed to take a gig and start making a little bit of money. I was proud to have him. He plays guitar and also plays harmonica and sings.
Jimmy Melton and I started writing somewhere around ’04 or ’05. We started writing together. He would also hire me to come in and sing demos from time to time. It was always a pleasure to get to work with him because Jimmy represents the old traditional style of country music. He’s all about it. He grew up playing it. He got to Nashville I think somewhere in the 80s and has been there ever since. He’s one of those guys that just has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything that’s ever happened on Music Row. He remembers who wrote what. He remembers what the demo sounded like and how much more better it was than the cut. He can tell you where all the bodies are buried and who put them there. So it was really fun getting to cut my teeth on Music Row politics and country music and stuff like that with someone like Jimmy show me the ropes. After Merle Haggard passed away, I was asked to come out on the road and do these shows that Merle had committed to with Willie. The first thing I thought of, “well I’m going to need a guitar player that knows every Merle Haggard song known to man.” He was the first and only person I thought of and so I called Jimmy to come out and do those shows with me. I can’t remember how many shows we did, but he just stayed with us. It was great having him out and it is still great having him out. We still do a lot of that Haggard stuff, but we do a whole lot more that he is well versed in. He plays lead guitar and he plays banjo.
My keyboard player is Jefferson Crow. I really don’t remember how we came across Jefferson. I know I was leaning on a couple of guys in the band to help us out. He came out to join us one day on one of our runs. I think my initial thought was that we were going to try this out and see how it works. We had a couple of other keyboard players join us. Typically, if we don’t have a keyboard player, we’ll bring Moose, Jim Brown, he played on all of my records. Moose also travels with Bob Seger, which is the reason why he can’t travel with us. He’s already got a traveling gig and when he’s not doing that, he’s home back in Nashville making records. He’s got a studio at his place. Somehow the reference came up, “you should try Jefferson Crow on the road,” so we brought Jefferson out and soon as started playing I realized this guy a musician. There’s a difference between somebody who can play a bunch of songs and might know 5 or 6 keys and someone who can play every song in every key. A musician doesn’t really have limitations. They have the ability to transpose and the ability to learn everything there is in every key. He’s just been a God send over there. He can play everything. I kinda dig the fact that one of his influences is Garth Hudson from The Band. Garth was known for being able to make it talk, make it sing. It’s not just playing chords and riffs. Those are all nice and everything, but he had the ability to just make a sound, an effect that provides a background for a song. Jefferson does that all the time. He’s reason a lot people get chills out there and they’re not sure why. It’s probably because of something Jefferson is doing over there on that B3 or on that keyboard, or the combination there of. He’s a wizard at it and I love having him over there.
We have two drummers, partly because I like having two drummers. Growing up, I learned music in a drum and bugle corp. One drummer is great, but can’t play everything you want to hear or everything I’m accustomed to hearing, especially on drums. Having two drummers, they have to find a way to coordinate the two of them. Having one on drum set and another on a percussion station, you’re going to get those different sounds partly they’re not going to play the same things. The other thing that happens as a direct result of that is tempos are fairly easy to lock in and they are fairly easy to speed up and slow down. It sounds more like music. I never have been one for laying it on the metronome and making it stick to a beat. That’s too much machinery and that’s too robotic and humans just aren’t equipped to listen to music that way. You can, it’s not bad for you or nothing, but it’s just that we live and breathe. You wouldn’t take a breath exactly the same volume of air every single breath or you’d just get bored to tears after a while. We have to have some things with some degree of difference, some degree of inconsistency, because that’s what life is. So I like having two drummers back there to kind of shake up some of the monotony and kinda rushing and dragging at the same time.
The interesting thing, you added a horn section to the band. It reminds of me the major productions from Ray Charles and Ray Price big band with country flavor appeal. Sturgill Simpson even added horns to his live performances after his last album.
I had these guys out before I knew what Sturgill is doing. I’m glad he has a horn section too and I’ve heard great things about them. I brought mine out because it was a sound that was missing. Again, I grew up learning music and playing music in the drum and bugle corps. So I got two drummers, so I need a horns section. So the guy that I called was Mart Avant. Mart Avant wrote all of the sheet music for the drum and bugle corp I grew up playing in – South Wind Drum and Bugle Corp. I called up Mart to come up Nashville and help me with some horn parts on this Johnny Cash stuff I was working on. Of course, he knocked it out of the park. He writes his own arrangements. He wrote some really great parts for these songs. I told him, “I would really like for you guys to come out on the road with us. We got a good band, but we just got to fill it up a little bit.” I just wanted to hear it. I couldn’t wait to hear what we’d sound like with a full band playing behind me. So, he brought out Jimmy Bowling and Dick C. Aven. Both of them play sax, both of them play just about anything there is to play. The name of the brass section that Mart put together, they have played for The Temptations and The Four Tops for the past forty something odd years. It’s called Tuscaloosa Brass and last year they got inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
The drummer’s names, by the way, are Tony Coleman, who you just met. Tony played with B.B. King, I want to say from 1973 and on. I couldn’t be more proud to have him out with us because when we play blues, it really sounds like blues. I mean, if you can’t get any better, you’ve got the man’s drummer back there holding time and filling up the sound.
Rob Crawford is very versatile drummer. He can play all kinds of style. I can turn and go, “I like it, but I don’t really love it just yet. What can you do to shake it up, or what can you do to kinda change things up ever so slightly.” He’s always got another idea. He’s very easy to get along with. It’s not very common for drummers to be able to switch things up that easily. A lot of drummers have a very rigid way of thinking and once they learn a song this way, it can never change. Between me and Rob, the band don’t know what to expect every night. We’ll start a song off slow one night and then we’ll chase it down their throats the next night. It’s good to have someone back there that I don’t have to discuss all of that with. He can gather from the slightest little hint from my guitar what I’m going after. It makes it a whole lot of fun. It makes me feel like I have more control over a band and not less. It’s really fun.
And then there’s Melonie Cannon. In 2001, when I was shopping for a record deal, I met Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson. I asked them, “if I am able to get an opportunity here, will y’all produce my record?” And they both agreed they would. That started my relationship with Buddy and Norro. Norro just passed away yesterday (June 8, 2017). Norro wrote the Charlie Rich song, “The Most Beautiful Girl.” He also wrote “The Grand Tour” and a bunch of other great songs. Buddy wrote “Set Em Up Joe.” He’s had some George Strait songs over the years and he was producing Kenny Chesney; and still is. Come to find out, he used to write with Vern Gosdin. He used to work with, hell he played bass with Waylon for a while. He also played bass for Mel Tillis and The Statesiders a long time ago. Through Buddy, I met his daughter Melonie. My family and their family are real tight. Might as well be extended family to one another. In fact, Buddy and my dad have the same birthday. Melonie’s birthday is two days away from my sister’s. Buddy’s wife Billie and my mom, their birthday is two days away too. Melonie’s a great singer. She’s had a bluegrass career and I’m proud to have her helping us with the vocals.
I think that’s all of the band. There’s a bunch in the crew I can mention – T.W. and Chad. In fact, we’ve got Sturgill’s stage manager out with us, Dalton. For the first time ever, I’ve got a guitar tech. He’s got the same name as my uncle that taught me how to play guitar in the first place, Bobby Joe.
I remember back in 2008, you released the High Cost of Living album. I had been to a couple of shows before and right after that release. You performed at the Lexington Opera House and from the moment you dropped the first note, fans were singing word for word. However, there is something special about In Color. Whenever you play it, the fans immediately get up from their seats and start singing along. Personally for me, it brings me to tears reflecting back on my grandparents and looking at their old photographs. I always hope one day that folks reflect on the photos that I have taken. As a songwriter, what feelings come over you hearing them sing along to In Color?
I don’t know if I can name it, but if I could describe it, I could say it has a lot to do with mutual understanding. That’s how we relate and that’s our bond. It’s just not in that song, it’s in the rest of them they sang too. That there’s a reciprocal bond there. I know you. You know me. I get you and you get me. We understand one another and we relate to one another. In a lot of ways, we are one another. It’s always special hearing them singing the words back to you. I remember when that started happening with High Cost of Living. There were grown men coming apart that would come up and tell me at the end of the night that song was their life.
Of course, with In Color when we started doing it, people connected with it in a real way. They really did connect with it because they can remember all the times they sat down looking through the family photo album at the old black and white pictures trying to get the back story of where I came from. Knowing my own personal history is fine, but it doesn’t feed that longing to know where all of us came from. We want to know what happened before us. How did I come to be? You know there’s people in this world that were one decision away from not being here at all. It’s that mutual understanding that I think bonds us together. I love hearing their stories. I love people telling me about how their family came from dire beginning or other people that came from royalty and reached dire beginnings.
It’s very interesting to hear the military connection with that song. All of the families that have been touched by the selfless act of a Veteran that because of a man who gave his life, their uncle, their grandfather came home safe. There’s families that have the opposite side of that story that their loved one gave his life so that somebody else could come home safe. In a way, the song is the direct bloodline, the direct connection of bloodlines through combat like that.
The verse about the wedding day came directly from a picture I have of my grandparents the day they got married. A black and white picture of my grandparents. The line “look at that smile, I was so proud,” PawPaw wasn’t smiling in that picture at all. He wasn’t smiling at all in that picture. He was standing tall and proud, but he was very serious about it. It meant business to him. At the time, he was 19 and my grandmother was 14 and she was too young to get married. Her brothers thought so and her brothers, in fact, wanted to hang him from the nearest oak tree. And PawPaw had to run away with her to get married so it was very serious to him that day. That line, “look at that smile,” was his sense of humor. That’s exactly what he would say looking at a picture, “look at that big ole smile,” and you would look at him going, “I don’t see a smile?”
Over the last few years, you have been asked to perform at several tribute concerts. From Merle Haggard to Waylon to Randy Travis, Kris Kristofferson, Little Feat, The Band, and so many more…how do you pick each song that you are to perform?
The first thing that happens when it a tribute show gets added, is that all of the artists jump all over their favorite choice. I always sit back and won’t even respond to the emails asking what song I’m going to do. I wait until everybody’s happy that they picked the one they want to do. I usually pick from what’s left over, the ones that people might have forgotten about. I guess that’s my, it could be me being lazy, or it could be me being indecisive. In fact, it’s usually the case waiting until everybody else has picked their song, I’ve still got about 5 or 6 that I’m trying to decide which one to do. It’s different criteria each time.
With Merle, it was almost impossible to pick a song. Merle Haggard wrote so many great songs. I was talking to Don Was after that tribute show and we could have done that same show the next night and not done any of those songs and had just a strong of a show. It was incredible the catalog he left behind. What makes a man want to say so much? We were definitely blessed to have Merle Haggard in country music for all those years.
With Waylon, you did Freedom to Stay, which is interesting because the first time I saw Wayne Mills in concert, he performed that song. He turned to me afterwards and asked if I did Waylon justice as he knew I was a huge Waylon fan. Then later on it was performed at his funeral. Then you ended up playing it at the Waylon tribute.
Wayne and I started playing shows together in 2002. The first play Wayne and I played a show together was in my hometown in Montgomery with the Jubilee City Fest. I think it was May 2nd that year. I had this brand-new album called,They Call Me Country. I went down there and played my old bar, Pure Country, one night. Then the next night I went downtown to play the Jubilee City Fest. That day, I opened for Wayne Mills and Randy Travis. That was the first show we ever played together. I had been hearing about Wayne for 8 or 9 years by then. It went all the way back to me being in college at Jacksonville State. I used to hear about the Wayne Mills Band. Some fraternity would book them and we would hear they were in town and we’d drop in uninvited, unannounced try to catch a listen to them. I always liked the fact that he was unapologetically country as hell. In fact, unapologetic isn’t a strong enough word to describe how Wayne felt his right to play country music the way he liked it. I’ve always had a great respect for him and to know too that we did that show together, we traded phone numbers and within months, he and I are booking gigs together, both of us. It would be some frat show, some bar somewhere. If we weren’t playing together, we were touring kind of in a cycle. Like he would tell me all of the gigs he was doing and making a little bit of money. He’d give me the guys’ numbers and I’d call them up and start booking myself in them same bars. Those are the kinds of songs we were doing – “Freedom to Stay” was one of those.
I think it was somewhere around ’03 or ’04 when Wayne and I played Harry’s Bar in Tuscaloosa. We started the show that night at 8 o’clock. It was me and him, and his guitar player, Peso. Dave Woest is his name. We started that show at 8 o’clock that night. It was just the three of us. It was an acoustic gig, but we had a room full of people. Wayne and I immediately started drinking, which was customary for us back then. As soon as you start playing, that’s a good time to have your first drink. So, we got Jack Daniels coming to the stage. It might as well had been a barrel with a straw rolled up there. We drank so much Jack Daniels that night, I can’t even begin to tell you. And they kept them coming. Good God every time that cup went empty, here comes some more ice and here comes some more Jack Daniels. And we weren’t mixing it with nothing, we were just pouring it straight. Solo cup full of ice and fill it up with Jack Daniels and that’s it, that’s your drink. That show that started at 8 p.m. didn’t end until 4 a.m. the next morning. Wayne and I had sat there and played 8 hours’ worth of solid country music because we wanted to and had nothing better to do. I can still remember getting in my truck and sleeping a couple of hours trying to sober up. I made a lot of awful mistakes back then, but I cherish that show. I cherish all of those shows that I got to do with Wayne. He was a great man and a great friend.
I always enjoy hearing Wayne Mills stories and I miss seeing him anytime I’m down in Nashville. You are right – he was unapologetic country as that is what he truly was. I am always amazed at the stories many have shared. He was a true entertainer on stage that worked hard.
Someone that I keep in touch with when I’m down in Nashville that was also a friend of yours and Wayne is Rowdy (Jason Cope). I’m tickled pink that his band The Steel Woods are doing well these days.
I love that. That’s what he wanted from the first time I met him. I knew he was destined for something huge. I’m so glad that he’s seen it come to fruition. We met in LA around ’07. I went out there on a trip. We had just done this session in Nashville for That Lonesome Song. We had a great album just off that. I kinda already had a direction for the album. I was very happy with it, but I was getting a lot of pressure from Dave Cobb to come out and let him produce some songs. He kinda had this idea and these instruments. He had this place and he had this band he was working with, which was Rowdy and Chris Powell and Brian Wade on bass. Dave was very exciting about the idea of me coming out there and doing some songs with him. I kind of kept shoving it off at first. Then I saw that I was going to be out there anyway doing something else. I said, “look, let’s do it in town while I’m on this run right here.” I think it was going to be 4 or 5 days that I was going to be working in L.A. on this other thing. I ended up spending that time in Dave’s studio. It was either day one or day two of our studio time out there that I had this idea for a song, but I didn’t have time to write it. Shannon Lawson and James Otto came to the studio that morning, not to write, they just came. They wanted to see what we were doing in this studio. I sat down with them two and Rowdy and told them about this idea for this song. I said, “we got a little time while we’re getting the mics set up, let’s see what we can do with this.” We ended up writing Can’t Cash My Checks. Instead of recording a guitar vocal like we almost always do if it’s a Nashville type co-write, we were in the studio so it just became the first song we recorded that day.
That song has affected a lot of farm families that’s for sure not knowing if they have enough money from their crops to pay the bills they have held off on paying to raise that crop.
It was the idea of having somebody that’s thoroughly honest that yeah, you can’t cash your checks. It doesn’t mean you can’t take them yet, but you gotta hold onto it until payment comes through.
Playing that song at Farm Aid had to be pretty emotional in front of the family farmers out in the audience.
When you’re singing it to the farmers that connect with it the best, yeah it can be emotional. But it can be emotional anywhere. There’s a lot of people that can relate to that that aren’t farmers. There’s poor people everywhere you look doing the best they can to make ends me and still don’t.
Seeing that you always have a fresh take of a classic song deep in a catalog, do you feel like you are a curator of songs for future generations when you perform them?
Well it’s just there. I never have looked at any song I wrote as a single or an album cut. Just like you wouldn’t look at your kids and say, “oh this one is going to be successful and this one’s gonna suck and this one’s gonna kind of be there.” You would never do that. Well I don’t do that with songs. It’s either important to me and relevant to me or it’s not. If I put it on an album, it’s because it is important and relevant and I want people to hear it. Or I want to share it with people, or I would bother. I believe the same to be true about Waylon, Merle Haggard, Hank Cochran, and Willie and Kristofferson, Cash, and the rest of them. I know for a fact they thought about them that way. When I’m going through my record collection and I find that little gem that preaches to me, heck I want to put that on stage. If it did that for me, I want it to do that somebody else. That’s the name of the game – it’s more about the songs that preach. Sometimes it’s just about finding the songs that are fun. I caution people to don’t put a whole lot of weight in this idea that I’m some kind of prophet. That’s a lot of undo accolade for me to begin with. And don’t forget I’m the same guy that wrote Honky Tonk Badonkadonk. I just there’s a time and place for everything. By the way, that’s my connection to Billy Ray Cyrus. He and I wrote the two worst songs in country music history – Achy Breaky Heart and Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.
He’s such a great guy. His attitude to everything is just so pleasant. He probably doesn’t realize all that stuff that’s going on out there. He doesn’t pay an attention to it. He’s just so laid back, so unassuming.
He called me go play this police officer’s memorial service in Nashville – Officer Mumaw. At the time, I had a show that night so I said, “yeah I’ll see you there.” I had the show and when the show gets over with, I flew to Nashville. The next morning, I got up and got ready to go do this memorial service. I kind of knew the song he wanted to do, Some Gave All. I still remember it from the nineties. So, I didn’t have to listen to it, I just knew it. Well I got to the church where the memorial service was. He and I ran through the song a couple of times and then it was time to go play. And in all the time that went by from the time he asked me to do this and the time we were sitting on the stage playing it, I didn’t have the chance to read any news what this police officer had done. I’m glad I didn’t. There’s no way I could have sat out there and played without bawling like a baby in front of this crowd if I had known.
We came off the stage after playing that song and that’s when I grabbed my phone and looked up the latest news reports and found out about what had happened. This officer died in the line of duty trying to get this lady out of her car because she had pulled her car into the Cumberland River in Nashville. It wasn’t an accident. She intended to take her life and he intended to save it and he did. He saved her life and it cost him his to save it. And those officers were just as surreal as I’ve ever seen a group of people. They understood and I know they understood it before, but it really became a real reality after that of what they were doing, what their job required of them was the ultimate sacrifice. Should it be required, then that’s what we’re here to do. I think I was aware of that in the Marine Corp and I know they are aware of that in the police force. That memorial service has really bonded me to the Nashville Metro Police departments and the local sheriff’s departments in a real way. Every time I see those guys since then, they’re shaking my hand, thanking me for being there. I’m shaking theirs, thanking them for doing what they do. I’m thankful for Billy Ray. I think the world of that song and I’m glad he wrote it and glad he was paying attention to the news that day. He really caught a spirit.
You mentioned earlier that you have been working with John Carter Cash on a Johnny Cash project. What can you tell me about that project?
John Carter has a good number of poems that Johnny wrote. I say poems because they don’t have music to them. He’s working on an album where’s he’s pairing up these songs with songwriters from our day to finish up these Johnny Cash songs. One of them that I know he’s most proud of and you can’t get it anymore – he’s got Chris Cornell having finished one of these songs and then recorded it. I’m excited for it to come out. I got to do a couple of them. Part of it was just really cool to get this lyric in that we didn’t have a second verse to. So, John Carter and I sat down and wrote a second verse. The way we did it was by creating something akin to a painter’s palette. Where instead of colors on the palette, we put words on the palette out of context and took words that he used when writing his first verse. We just added words that fit the palette that’s similar the words and we took those words and built a second verse out of those words so that it’s still the same context and continues to the story. Of course, the music, it just kind of washes over. It’s what I think Johnny, in the same vein of what Johnny would sing. If I was writing with Johnny Cash, it wouldn’t be any different I don’t think unless he had something really awesome to consider. It was really fun to do that. I know that John Carter is really excited about to put that out. I sure was.
Within the last few years, you broke free from a major label deal and started your own independent label. So many fans have wondered about new music. I know that you released Alabama Pines single and the Christmas album. When can fans expect new music?
Eventually, but I’m in no hurry and no rush to get it done. I’m making progress on the creative parts of my brain. It’s been about 7 years ago, I got a concussion. I slipped on some ice coming out of the studio one night and I hit my head pretty hard. What I found out from a neuroscientist out in Scottsdale, Arizona, here recently is that ever since then, my brain has been locked in a hyper vigilant state, which it focuses on survival. Anything that isn’t directly relevant to survival, it just doesn’t focus on it all anymore.
So out went the songwriting, or the focus on songwriting, or even the openness to it even. I can still write. The craft is still there. The inspiration isn’t always there and even when it is, it isn’t very easy for me to focus on it the way that I once did. But it’s coming back little by little. So that’s one of the reasons for going so long.
The other would be that we have been touring so aggressively for the past ten or twelve years that it’s just not in harmony with what is required for me to be successful in the writing room. It’s hard to come off of the road where you got two or three days in between runs. It’s hard to come home and drop your luggage and head right into the writing room. I live alone. I don’t have a housekeeper. I don’t have a bunch of people to take care of this stuff for me, so when I get home, I got a lot of work to do just to pick the house up. Then I got to wash clothes, pack my bags, and get ready to go again. There’s a lot of resistance I say to songwriting for me. I’m getting the hang of it you know. The only way I’ll be able to completely write out of sheer inspiration, I’d have to come off the road for a period of time for a good while. I’m not ready to do that yet. The truth is, I really love it. I love traveling. I love playing all of these shows for all of these folks. I love that they love it and I could do that for a long time. I don’t see me ever quitting it.
I believe you are proof that whether or not corporate radio plays your music, it is heart of the small town locally own radio stations like here in Kentucky that continue to play your music because they listen to the fans. They take listener requests and those listeners yearn for good music like your songs.
I don’t think Woody Guthrie got a whole lot of trophies and number one parties and stuff like that for his music either. But everybody in the world knows “This Land Is Your Land.” I think that’s the thing of country music, or the thing of music in general that I follow more than any other. I can remember a manager that I butted heads with one time. He sent me a message on my phone and said, “I just wanted to be the first to tell you your new single died at country radio today.” Well he and I hadn’t talked in several months and that’s because the last time we talked, he was trying to force me into correcting my mix on that particular song so that we can get more spins at country radio. I didn’t want to stop what I was doing to work on that mix because I’m already on something else. I mixed that song with T.W. and I put it exactly where I liked it to be. I had no intention of fixing that mix in the first place. His message just kind of stunned me of how the level of cruelty exists in this business because of what I wanted and he wanted were two different things. I wanted to write songs that preached to the people. I wanted to tour around until I get too old to go and play my songs for those people. I wanted to inspire that generation and their kids’ generation, and their kids’ generation the same way my heroes did for me. All that he wanted to do is to tell me that my single died at country radio.
I called Willie like I often do whenever something confusing like that comes down the line. I told him what happened. Willie laughed and said, “my songs usually a long time before they get to country radio.” And he then said to me a piece of advice I’ll never forget. He said, “now Jamey those guys are going to come and go. Those managers, those label heads, those figure heads in Nashville, they’re going to come and go. They don’t even stay at the same company for very long. They trade up and put on a different jersey. But you and I, we got to get on our bus and we got to go take our music to the people. That’s our role. We don’t have to listen to that stuff and we don’t have to be phased by it and certainly don’t have to be controlled by it. We got to get on our bus and we got to get around and take our music with us.”
So, I didn’t pay attention to that manager anymore and it was soon after that I fired that management company. I’m happier today not having a manager. I don’t have anybody to butt heads with on anything. When I want to do something, we just do it.
I would love it, if the day comes, that country radio plays my music because the fans want them to. But I don’t think it will ever happen. Country music is controlled by the board members, the stockholders of the corporations who buy and sell the ads that country music has to sell to pay their bills. That’s not an accusation, that’s something that is a cold hard fact. They have to play what those stockholders require them to play because that’s what’s necessary for them to get more and more listeners. They have to entice those people into that station. It’s not to their benefit at all that they support me because when they tell me to something, I’m not going to do it. I’m just not going to jump up and play their corporate shindig for free just so I can get some more spins on a market. I’m too busy. I’ve got things to do already. I’ve got shows that I’m trying to get around to and when I’m not doing my shows, I’m going to go home and I’m going to spend time with my daughter. Try to see if I can get to know her a little better before she’s all grown up.
It is amazing seeing photos I’ve taken over the years of her joining you up on stage. She has truly grown up.
She’s thirteen now and pushing 5 foot 8! This kid’s going to be tall.
Going back to radio, I do know several stations in Kentucky that are listener driven. One of them is WFKY in Frankfort, Kentucky. In fact, they have a listener countdown and they’ll play Ward Davis, even “Old Worn Out Cowboys.” They played “Alabama Pines” and the listeners were calling in requesting to play it. The fans want good music.
Have you thought about putting together a Gospel album considering the number of hymnals and self-written tunes you have sang on each album?
In my mind, I’ve already done one. I produced the Blind Boys of Alabama gospel album called, Take the High Road. We did that in 2010. It was the most fun I can say I’ve ever had in a studio doing anything. The fun part was that we didn’t have a list of songs when we started that first session. We didn’t have any idea whatsoever what we wanted to do other than get the Blind Boys of Alabama in the studio, get the band together, and let’s start from the very beginning. It’s an album that was literally born right there in the studio. We didn’t reach out to a whole lot of other artists. They heard we in the studio doing this and a lot of them just stopped by. Bobby Bare stopped by along with Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack, Hank, Jr. It really was incredible to watch this album come to fruition in the way that it did. George Jones came by.
As far as doing my own gospel album, I’ll probably do that someday hopefully soon. I know that I need to get this band in the studio. They’re too good to not record.
As a father, what lesson do you hope that your daughter, Kylie, has learned all these years from you.
Not everything can be priority number one. Only one thing can be top priority. My top priority has always been her. Everything else is secondary. I really hope that she understands that and I know she does. She’s so smart. She made straight A’s on her report card all year long. I don’t know, but I just want her to know that God, family, it’s all the same thing. That’s your top priority. What you do for a living, traffic, bills, none of that crap matters. It just doesn’t matter. I never heard of anybody on their final day on the planet concerned with bills, or traffic, or what they did for a living. When we’re on that bed taking our final breath, we’re not going to be thinking about it. We’re going to be thinking about the things we loved the most. That’s going to be God, our kids, our families, treasuring our time. That’s what I would want for her.
Jessica Bray is the owner and founder of Kentucky Country Music website. The Berea College graduate has been a music journalist and historian for over 20 years. She enjoys providing concert photography, reviews, historical articles, red carpet event coverage, and exclusive interviews of your favorite musicians. Jessica is proud to be a Kentucky Colonel and alumni of the FFA and 4-H Clubs. In 2018, she was named one of Laurel County’s Ten Under 40 Award Recipients. In 2019, she was a member of the Inaugural class of BRIGHT Kentucky as part of Leadership Kentucky. She has been featured on the Kentucky Music Preview podcast, Overtones radio show, WFKY Nashville News Roundup, KET, and more. Beyond music, she enjoys traveling, helping her community, collecting gnomes, and Volkswagens.