Jamey Johnson's 'Christmas' Gift to Fans: New Music
Jack Spencer

After a much-publicized parting of ways with Universal, Jamey Johnson is back in the music-making way. The singer has just released a new five-song EP called The Christmas Song, available at his website, iTunes and Google Play. Johnson tells Billboard it's a good feeling to have new music out.

"I'm proud we were able to do it. I'm glad we were able to get the label going and get the music out in one form or another," he says. "I think we missed our window of opportunity to get them into retail, but we're making our phone calls, and if we can get it out there in the next week or two, we will. If not, we'll get the physical copies out next year. It's Christmas music. It's not going to go away. It will be back," he reasons.

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Johnson's loyal and devoted fans -- who have made such albums as 2008's That Lonesome Song and 2010's The Guitar Song consistent sellers -- have been clamoring for new music for awhile. He says he is humbled and touched by their never-ending support. "They have been great," he says. "My timing could have been better as far as having a release. That's why we went with the Christmas music first. I knew they wanted something from us, and at this point, something from us is better than nothing at all. So we put out this album, and after the start of the year, we'll begin releasing some brand-new material. Who knows, we might even some live music or some single-song type things, like 'You Are My Sunshine' that we did with Shooter Jennings and Twiggy Ramirez."

Johnson is very optimistic about what the future holds musically. "There's a lot of great things to come in 2015, and the good news is....we're having fun. Music is supposed to be fun, and if it's not, then we're doing it wrong."

The Christmas Song is the inaugural release on Johnson's Big Gassed label. In addition to his music, Johnson also plans to produce several new acts for Big Gassed. "I've got several friends of mine who have never had their opportunity, and I'm going to do everything I can to help them record their music. We've got a great publicist in Beverly Keel, and we're going to try to get the word out about them. We'll see how far we can go with some of them -- there are a few that are already playing in front of some big crowds. They just need a little bit of help and guidance, and I can certainly teach them what not to do," he says good-naturedly.

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"South Alabama Christmas," from the new set, is the first new Johnson co-write in four years. He worked on the song with Bill Anderson and Buddy Cannon, with whom he wrote the George Strait hit "Give It Away." Johnson has nothing but the utmost respect for both men, saying, "I think Bill Anderson is a traditionalist from way back. When he came back to town, he was every bit the traditionalist and troubadour that he is today. He, Willie and Merle are my leading mentors -- going back as far as I can go. They saw country music for what it was then, and me being a traditionalist, I take my lessons from them seriously, and I try to learn them to the best of my ability so I can pass them down to the people who come after me. Bill and Buddy both do that for me. Buddy literally walked me through my first session. Most of the stuff I learned in the studio, I learned from Buddy Cannon."

Johnson also collaborates with the Secret Sisters on "Mele Kalikimaka," which he says made sense to record for several reasons. "It's got a lot of tricky starts and stops, and the band had to play more like an orchestra and less like a honky-tonk band. It was fun to hear them sort out all of the twists the song offered up. There's modulation and key changes, and all sorts of instrumental gaps and solos, and that sort of thing. We had to bring in Mickey Raphael because Chris Hennessy was trying to cover the harmonica part, and trying to play it with three different harmonicas, but it can't be played without this special kind of chromatic harmonica. Mickey was the only guy we knew who might have one, so we called him, and sure enough he pulls out the golden harp and laid that part on. When I was thinking about who to do the female part, there was only one thought: the Secret Sisters. They are the only ones I know that have that vocal control and that style of harmony. Everything they do is so spot-on. They are our modern-day version of the Andrews Sisters."

The Christmas Song is available now.

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