critic’s pick 250

Spend about 10 minutes tuned to your favorite country radio station, and you might wind up wondering how today’s pop-centric stars would have any connection at all to a Nashville giant like Hank Cochran. Enter Jamey Johnson, the Alabama outlaw singer with the slow-smoked voice that recalls vintage Waylon Jennings. Turns out the guy has a traditionalist streak a couple of country miles wide.

On what is only his fourth major label album, Johnson performs 16 classic Cochran songs with help from a stable of 14 country-and-then-some stylists. Most of them are fairly out-of-step with the Nashville mainstream. But once Johnson and Alison Krauss open Living for a Song with an elegant, unassuming reading of Make the World Go Away, the gates to another country age swing wide open. The steadfast harmonies are effortless while the shimmering backdrop of piano, guitar and pedal steel create a mood that is immediately enchanting.

Think that’s cool? Up next is the iconic I Fall to Pieces, a tune that might seem forever linked to Patsy Cline and the majestic, career-defining version she forged into a hit in 1960. Johnson doesn’t even try to recreate the Cline temperament. Instead, he saddles up with the ageless Merle Haggard and injects the song with the mischievous attitude of a barroom meditation.

Living for a Song also calls upon artists who were protégés of sorts to Cochran. Ray Price (who originally recorded Make the World Go Away in the ‘60s along with a separate hit version by Eddy Arnold) sounds like a million bucks on a version of You Wouldn’t Know Love that grows from a quiet acoustic glow initiated by Johnson into an epic orchestral sweep.

Similarly, Willie Nelson co-pilots Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me, which Price hit big with in 1966 (the two singers have cut a duet version, as well). With Johnson, the tune simmers over a lean arrangement of country regret colored by Nelson’s Django Reinhardt-style guitar scramble and the longing echoes of Mickey Raphael’s harmonica accents.

We could go on. Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, George Strait and Lee Ann Womack – all of whom have cut Cochran songs over the years – sound splendid. But perhaps the biggest delight is Johnson’s solo version of Would These Arms Be in Your Way, a tune recorded previously by the late Kentucky country star Keith Whitley. No modern country-pop bells and whistles are sounding here, just a stoic, string-savvy setting that beautifully allows a present day country thrillseeker to echo the inspirations of a true pioneer.

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