Q&A: Jamey Johnson Gets Serious on 'Guitar Song'

The setting is Music Row, specifically RCA Studio A on the last day of August, and

It doesn't seem you were writing songs to get on the radio, but it has to feel great that so many people love this record ("That Lonesome Song" has sold 815,000 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan).

It still does. I appreciate that more than they can possibly imagine.

Obviously, on the new record you had total creative freedom in the studio.

That creative freedom is not something that was granted to me, it's something that has always been mine. I'm the one that chooses whether or not I give that up. Nobody comes and demands that I give it up. You can demand all you want to, you'll be met with the same result everybody else has been met with so far.

Well, that could be the difference between having success and not being able to get your music out there.

Says who? That's the attitude we deal with all the time. "You want to be successful, you do what I say." And what I say is, "You're not even in my way. I don't even have to go around you. I'll just disregard you altogether and you're the one that goes away."

Being on a major label can mean that more people hear your music.

It helps, I won't say it don't. But I was ready to do it on my own before we did the label thing. I'd already made up my mind that it was going to be hard and it was going to take me the rest of my life, but I've still got time to go and I can make another record after this one. I think the label helped get me out to the mass audience a lot quicker. I won't say that either one of us could do it without the other one. The best label in town that doesn't have an artist don't have a record to sell. The best artist in town that don't have a label can't get their music out there. But you can create that from nothin'. They did a long time ago, before radio was even involved in the music business, they were still gettin' music out there.

Maybe like that cave man in your song "Heartache?"

He mighta been a songwriter.

Your song "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" (a big hit for Trace Adkins) has taken its share of shots, but it had to be helpful for it to do as well as it did.

That's the best joke me and [co-writers] Randy [Houser] and Dallas [Davidson] ever told. We had a lot of fun with that. That's about as good a laugh as I've ever had in a writing room, when we got done with that song right there. I'm glad that it did what it did. It gave my little girl something to dance to.

Is the new record being a double CD just an extension of you having so much material?

A few years ago, before everything cranked back up when I was in between deals, we came in and recorded a session. We didn't know it was going to turn into an album, but it turned into our first album we released on our own, the Kent Hardly Playboys and me. Right after I did that first session, I went to L.A. and did another session with some friends out there, a guy named Dave Cobb who I met through Shooter Jennings. He had produced Shooter's album "The Wolf." So I had an appreciation for Dave's work already, and he kept telling me, "You need to come to L.A. and record with these guys out there." So I did, and about a month-and-a-half after we did "That Lonesome Song," we were back in Nashville and made another record, and then a few months later we recorded another session. Every time we recorded 10 or 12 songs. My thinking was to go completely outside the box and not just release one album, but put out five or six a year, just let 'em go. When I got busy and didn't have enough time to focus on those things any more, they just started piling up. Ol' TW and I would be sitting in the mixing room listening to these songs and trying to make our way through 'em. There were songs that seemed to work together really well, and songs that didn't seem to fit this particular album at all. But somewhere in between working on a mix one night, we just kind of sat back and dreamt up this idea about having an album that takes you on an emotional journey.

How did you go about selecting the songs for each album?

There are subtle differences between the Black Album and the White Album, and then there are differences that are not so subtle. Some songs work really good when you put 'em in between this one and that one, but if you take it out of context and just throw it over on the other side, or put it somewhere else, it doesn't really work that well. It tends to be a distraction from the album, as opposed to working with everything else and making it more fluid. So we would take those songs out. We just made a distraction pile after a while of those songs that didn't fit this [project]. They'll come out later on a future album. I'd say for at least the next several albums we're still going to be releasing stuff we cut in 2007-2009.

Was much of the new album done live in the studio?

It was all tracked the way that you hear it. We just go in there and play.

Are most of your studio musicians also on the road with you?

Cowboy Eddie [Long], Wayd [Battle], Rowdy [Jason Cope], they're all out there on the road. The differences in our traveling band and our band here in Nashville has a lot to do with people's schedules. The drummer that plays with us in the studio Dave McAfee, he spends his time out on the road playing with

You included some interesting covers on this album, including one I've never heard before by Keith Whitley, "Lonely at the Top."

I had never heard that song before, and it turns out I don't think Keith has ever put it out. The only version I've ever heard is a work tape that he did back when he wrote it. It's a great song.

How do you come up with the cover songs?

It can be just all the guys hanging out in the control room, thinkin' about what we're fixin' to go in to play. Maybe playin' a couple of songs I wrote and not really catching the vibe or whatever, then turn around and play an old song that seems to fit better with what we just got through playing. Sometimes our sessions are nothing more than us kicking back and listening to our favorite music that day. If there's something that doesn't jive with the rest of what we're playing on that session that day, we get those things out of the way and we come in with the ones that do work. That's where you get songs like "For the Good Times" or "Mental Revenge." It's usually gonna be some vibe we're looking for, or some feeling we're looking to expand on a little better.

The Black Album is really dark, but the White Album isn't exactly kumbaya, either.

The two albums together are nothing more than a cycle of life: this leads to that which provoked that and led to that and turned into this. The White Album would be the more redemptive, the lesson learned from all of that freedom and making the wrong calls here or there. That's how you learn to do things right. Thomas Edison even said he didn't think about the '0,000 ways not to make a light bulb, all he needed was the one way it did work. I think it's the lesson learned that's the focus on that side.

Do you feel like you're a part of something down here on Music Row?

Yeah, definitely. And it's not just the current generation, either. You can feel the history of Music Row in ever single building you go into down here. And if you don't know the history, you just have to ask the receptionist or anybody else you can get ahold of, they can tell you all about it. This studio right here has got so many stories, I can't keep up with 'em all.

What can you tell me about the Kent Hardly Playboys?

They are the nicest bunch of assholes I've ever met.

I can tell that doing interviews isn't your favorite thing to do.

I would say interviews go at the bottom. I don't enjoy interviews at all. I don't know why, but it's not a lot of fun for me at all.

Is it journalists or just the process?

It can sometimes feel like an interrogation, or even sometimes an all-out assault on the ideas that I make music out of. I don't like to exploit those ideas or that thinking or the story behind anything -- I don't want to exploit that at all. I like to leave that stuff intact so I can go write some more. There's nothin' worse than to have somebody get the story wrong and now they've misinformed everybody. This is something I deal with on a very personal level. I don't like good press, I don't like bad press, I just don't like any of it. I see it's necessary to go sell the records and everything else, I'm not trying to say they should all be damned and burned. It's just not my strong point for those reasons. Music to me is way more personal than some people might make it out to be. You guys seldom if ever meet people that hold music as personal to their soul as I do to mine. Ya'll meet people all the time that are looking to broadcast everything and try to sell out and get every dollar they can get, and I don't do nothin' for money. We did good here today. Nobody got yelled at or fussed at.