The closing track on Jamey Johnson's 2007 album That Lonesome Song depicts the tumultuous journey of a young country artist trying to figure out Nashville.
"I rolled into town with a sound of my own," Johnson sings in its setup chorus, "somewhere between Jennings and Jones."
If you aren't familiar with the Alabama crooner's decidedly traditional country releases, that song could serve as a fitting introduction to the man. He sings and plays in styles that go far deeper than the newfangled country-pop you're hearing everywhere now. Beer and babes rule the day, but this guy would rather sing about loneliness and self-destruction. And he'll do it with heaping helpings of pedal steel, honky-tonk piano and Willie Nelson-style acoustic guitar.
Johnson thrilled Dallas fans on Friday at House of Blues with a live version of "Between Jennings and Jones," during an evening of originals and covers performed with his six-piece band. Donning a t-shirt, jeans and his ever-present mountain-man beard, the 40-year-old singer met a crowd that was at times excessively talkative (maybe their buzz had kicked in) but still excited to see him.
Tunes from That Lonesome Song peppered Johnson's setlist on Friday. After all, the sophomore album was his breakout, critically acclaimed release, one followed by only two more LPs so far. Its best known single, the heartrending family ode "In Color," inspired a singalong, and the title tune "That Lonesome Song" set a distinctive mood with its simmering chorus and ominous steel-guitar lines.
But it was the set's opening tune, "High Cost of Living," that left the strongest impression. Johnson's rich-as-maple-syrup baritone lends itself so well to those blunt regret anthems.
His sound is timeless, so it was no wonder that his original material blended so naturally with the list of classics he chose to cover on Friday.
He opted mainly for the soft and tender gems such as the ballad "Amanda," a song both Don Williams and Waylon Jennings popularized. Johnson smoldered during his bluesy take on "I Fall to Pieces," the recording of which is on the wonderful 2012 Hank Cochran tribute album Living For a Song. And he reminded us again of his inherent smoothness while doing George Jones' "Tennessee Whiskey."
While he remained stoic behind the mike aside from the occasional smile of approval for his band or the crowd's singing, Johnson did celebrate his Lone Star visit with in song. He offered a full version of "The Yellow Rose of Texas" -- maybe the saddest, prettiest rendition that's ever crossed these ears. He also gave a nod to his own Alabama roots, following "Yellow Rose" with an outlaw-worthy treatment of "Oh! Susanna."
Whatever he's singing, Johnson is keeping the soul-stirring spirit of classic country relevant. Hail to the beard.