''The Guitar Song'' singer-songwriter is one of Nashville's most riveting artists

By Mikael Wood
October 01, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

Jamey Johnson has had a few. It’s the night before the country star finds out how his new 25-track double album, The Guitar Song, performed its first week in stores, and his handlers have it on good authority that the outcome is happy: Johnson’s first No. 1 on Billboard’s country chart. So the 35-year-old singer and a small entourage are celebrating at the bar of the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills.

His pals are celebrating, anyway: Well into what appears to be the latest in a series of double Jack Daniel’s on the rocks, Johnson himself is in a cloudier mood, somewhere between sloshed philosopher and wasted tough guy. He’s answering questions — at veeerrry slooow speeeeed — but not necessarily the ones being asked, holding forth instead on ”the difference between the music industry and real industry” and the continuing importance of Farm Aid. ”You have no idea what it takes to make a man like me,” he finally announces out of nowhere, before asking, a little menacingly, if our interview is done. Yep, probably a wise idea.

That unpolished demeanor may turn off Taylor Swift fans, but it’s a big part of why Johnson has quickly become one of Nashville’s most exciting artists. The tension between violence and vulnerability is key to his appeal. ”There’s a wildness in Jamey’s eyes,” says Dave Cobb, who produced portions of The Guitar Song and its acclaimed 2008 predecessor, That Lonesome Song. ”You never quite know if he’s gonna write a hit song or kick your ass.”

The next afternoon Johnson is pretending to strum his guitar inside a tiny dive bar off Hollywood Boulevard. Matthew McConaughey is directing the music video for ”Playing the Part,” The Guitar Song‘s latest single, and in an attempt to loosen up his fearsomely bearded friend, the actor is doing a goofy little dance between takes. Johnson cracks a half smile, then requests a few fingers of JD in a red plastic cup.

According to Johnson’s manager, ”a different Jamey” woke up this morning, one buoyed by the confirmation that the new album had sold 63,000 copies and debuted in the top 10 of the Billboard 200. Truth be told, though, Joyful Jamey isn’t so unlike Riled-Up Jamey; the distinction might just be a trick of the high-powered movie lights.

It wasn’t always film stars and dive bars. Johnson was born to a religious family in tiny Enterprise, Ala., eventually studying music at Jacksonville State University and joining the Marine Corps Reserve. He moved to Nashville in 2000 and spent years in Music City’s pre-stardom purgatory, singing demos for songwriters and penning tunes for other artists. (One of his biggest successes was Trace Adkins’ decidedly ungloomy 2005 hit, ”Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.”) His major-label debut, 2006’s The Dollar, made only a minor splash. In stark contrast to his current evil-caveman look, that CD’s cover featured a photo of Johnson grinning out from underneath a crisp cowboy hat. ”I think he tried playing the part for a while,” says Luke Lewis, chairman of Johnson’s label, Mercury Nashville. ”It really didn’t work for him.”

On the Grammy-nominated That Lonesome Song, Johnson went way darker, charting the dehumanizing effects of his divorce and a bout with drug addiction. These days, he doesn’t want to talk about those times. ”I don’t feel connected to any one memory more than I do the others,” he says. ”I find me to be one of the most boring topics.”

The singer’s latest album expands his scope, with tunes about heartbreak and blue-collar struggle, as well as comic pieces about life in the fast lane. In ”Playing the Part,” he berates himself for appearing on the short-lived Fox reality series Nashville. ”These high-dollar women and the fame and the fortune,” he growls, ”ain’t worth the ticket I bought.”

Johnson says the two-disc set, which is divided into a ”Black Album” and a slightly cheerier ”White Album,” pairs ”songs that tell the deceleration of somebody’s happiness” with ”stories that tell the acceleration of that same person’s happiness.” Ups and downs are country’s meat and potatoes, of course, yet there’s a conceptual ambition to The Guitar Song — not to mention an emotional intensity — that sets it apart from much of Nashville’s more circumscribed fare.

”Jamey is a strong cup of country-music coffee,” says Tony Thomas, music director at Seattle country station KMPS-FM. ”He has a vision of what he’s trying to communicate, and as a songwriter he’s able to open up his soul and put it out there. But you have to lean in his direction. On his album, you’re in Jamey Johnson’s world.”

That can be a chilly place. Yet Johnson rules it with impressive will. ”I’m not looking for the path of least resistance,” he says on his tour bus during a break from shooting. ”I don’t really give a s— what the path of least resistance is. I’m out here looking to make the best album I can possibly make with the abilities I have at my disposal.” He shrugs, daring you to doubt him. ”If it works, wonderful. If it doesn’t work, no less wonderful.”