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Jamey Johnson is keeping it country onstage, not in the recording studio

Jamey Johnson says he comes up with setlists for his live shows “when I get to the microphone.”Charles Reagan Hackleman

Jamey Johnson has made five records. Two of them — ”That Lonesome Song” and “The Guitar Song” — rank with the best country albums of the 2000s. He followed those with a fine tribute to country songwriter Hank Cochran in 2012. There’s been no album with his name on it since, and Johnson seems entirely OK with that. Instead, he’s become a torchbearer for traditional country music who carries that torch in live performance, providing every-show-is-different lessons in the music’s history — How does he construct his setlist? “When I get to the microphone,” he says — and adding his voice to it via his own songs. We spoke to Johnson via Zoom ahead of his date at Indian Ranch in Webster Saturday. He’ll also be back in the area in November for a show at the Orpheum as part of the Last Waltz tour.

Q. You have a shirt on sale on your website with “Kicked Out of Country,” the title of a song you wrote with George Strait, printed on it. Is that song a nice distillation of how you view your relationship with mainstream country?


A. I think what’s happened with mainstream country and me is pretty well mutual. I don’t feel included in anything they do. I’m happy one way or the other in country music, and I don’t subscribe to the idea that the country music industry owns that term. They don’t, and so they don’t get to define it, either, because they define it by leaving out artists like me. You can’t define country music and leave out artists like me.

Q. You were invited to join a country music institution, the Grand Ole Opry, this year. What was your reaction to that? And what does being a member of the Opry mean to you?


A. Hope. It’s inclusion. I didn’t expect that. I’m so used to being excluded from everything. It felt a little odd at first. It caught me off balance. I love being a member of the Grand Ole Opry, and in a lot of ways it doesn’t feel like it’s sunk in yet.

Q. You have released a few singles and collaborative recordings in recent years, but it has been quite a while since you made an album. Is that something that is in the cards?

A. The career pressure on an artist to keep duplicating the same kind of success, I don’t want to feel that pressure. I’m a touring artist and a songwriter, and that’s what pays my bills, so that’s what I focus on the most. If every now and then I’m able to get into a writing room and get a song written, I’m happy and thrilled about that, especially when it turns into a success for somebody else. If it’s a song I like enough, I may put it in my show, too. In a lot of ways, my concert has become my new medium for releasing new music.

Q. So the main outlet for your creative energy is live performance.

A. That’s what I’m doing right now. It may change. When COVID took us off the road for a whole year, I thought: “Here’s an opportunity to not have to tour, maybe I’ll write some songs. Maybe I’ll get in the studio and record.” No [laughs]. Nothing like that happened. I came home, and I read about 50 books in a few months, and got done with that and thought, man, evidently my brain wants something to challenge it. So I immediately started working on a pilot’s license. I spent the remainder of the lockdown gathering hours for that.


Q. One of the most striking things about your shows is the attention you give and the respect you pay to past country music artists.

A. You can start with asking some of the young people in country music if they’ve even heard of names like Keith Whitley or Vern Gosdin. It’s startling how many people haven’t, but that makes it even more important to cover them and keep pointing back at them and go, “Man, if you like this, it came from here.” You take that forward and go, OK, Johnny Cash isn’t around anymore, so maybe there’s somebody out there every night who’s never heard Johnny Cash before. Then allow me to introduce you to Johnny Cash. Allow me to point you towards Waylon Jennings, Johnny Paycheck. I enjoy playing my own songs, and I do, but I don’t think I’ll ever do an entire set of just my own songs. That’s not the horse I rode in on.

Q. You don’t just play carbon-copy versions of the originals, though. You put your own stamp on them.

A. If I were more talented, maybe I’d be able to do them exactly [laughs]. Sometimes we don’t play the version we heard, we play the way it made us feel when we first heard it. That’s different. I don’t play “Big River” the way I heard Johnny Cash play it. I play it the way it made me feel when I first heard him play it. I felt like mashing the gas pedal and maybe driving a little too fast with my head out the window. I felt like I was on this chase, chasing this woman down this river, and then getting to the end of the river to find out she’s gone anyway. So we play our emotions instead of what’s written.


Interview was condensed and edited.


At Indian Ranch, 200 Gore Road, Webster. Oct. 8 at 1 p.m. $49.50. 508-943-3871. www.indianranch.com

Stuart Munro can be reached at sj.munro@verizon.net