The Ritz, Raleigh
Saturday, June 27, 2015
The one thing longer than Jamey Johnson’s beard may be his set list.
The outlaw country music favorite played for nearly three hours Saturday night at Raleigh’s The Ritz, daring the full house to request an encore by closing instead with a matter-of-fact nod to the crowd.
“Thanks for coming out tonight. You’re the reason we get to do what we do,” Johnson said, raising a plastic cup before following his seven-piece band offstage. “Y’all be careful out there.”
The brief sign-off may have been the singer’s longest string of words of the night. Throughout the dense show—jammed with dozens of songs from his break-out album, That Lonesome Song,
and its follow-up, The Guitar Song
, plus several hardcore country covers—Johnson offered very little commentary. Not that the crowd needed a pat on the back or backstories on the songs: Even without the support of mainstream country radio, practically a requirement for modern widespread success in the genre, Johnson has become a household name for the country-music-for-people-who-like-country-music crowd.
Writing some of country music’s biggest songs can do that for a singer-songwriter, as evidenced by the recent success of Chris Stapleton
’s solo debut, Traveller
. The opening licks of Johnson’s rendition of “Give It Away,”
the song that broke Conway Twitty’s record for most Billboard
Hot Country Chart number one singles for Texas titan George Strait, won him the biggest cheers of the night. (Side note: One of my favorite live music moments stars Johnson and this song. The singer closed his 2009 N.C. State Fair concert against the Fair’s nightly fireworks, visible through Dorton Arena's northern windows, with a deft re-tooling of its final lines: “I’ve got a furnished house, a diamond ring, and a fireworks display/And I can’t even give it away.")
In addition to his original songs and co-writes, Johnson pulls from a deep well of covers. Waylon Jennings, Don Williams and Willie Nelson, whose influences color nearly all his work, made the cut, but his renditions of George Jones’ liquor-soaked “Still Doin’ Time”
and Keith Whitley’s “Bitch at the Bottom”
won with the help of his long-time steel guitar player, Cowboy Eddie Long. A loose, rocking group of players dubbed the Kent Hardly Playboys backed Johnson well, but Long’s yearning, piercing backbone truly defines his sound.
All in all, the night was a celebration of that sound, one Johnson has locked down and nearly trademarked. Still, five years after the release of his last album of original material and the breakdown of his major-label deal, there was some staleness, a void where experimentation and new music felt tamped down in favor of crowd favorites and country classics. In a time when country music is pushing its boundaries, here’s hoping we haven’t seen the creative climax of one of its very best.