Normally I don’t talk much about Nashville artists in this segment. In fact, I rarely have anything good to say about Nashville at all. But I do believe in giving credit where it’s due, and sometimes they manage to produce a good one.
To be fair, this record started out indie anyway, as Johnson released it digitally on his own after being dropped from his previous label before Mercury Nashville picked it up and released it on CD in 2008. Johnson, though, was far from a Nashville outsider, having written hits for guys like George Strait and Trace Adkins – including a song that, to me, sums up all that’s wrong with the current country establishment, “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.” But I forgive him, and this song is why.
Like much of Johnson’s work, it’s a raw, gritty tune, and you get the feeling that it’s a song written from experience. It opens in a slow, bleak dirge, as he sings “That morning sun made its way through the windshield of my Chevrolet/Whiskey eyes and ashtray breath on a chert-rock gravel road.”
Johnson’s craggy voice carries the pain, uncertainty and regret that the situation requires – not knowing exactly where you are or what happened the previous night. Whether you’ve actually been in that situation or not, that opening gives you the feeling you have – and it’s not a good feeling.
From there, the song picks up a little, chugging along like the southbound train that he sings about in the chorus. The quicker tempo of the middle section clears a bit of the fog and depression of the early part of the song as resolve sets in. Though the outlaw country rock takes over, the tone of the song doesn’t change a whole lot. Rather than a celebration of the lifestyle, this song expresses a sadness in the situation, but a seeming inability to break free of it.
The song ends where it begins, with Johnson moaning out that opening line again as the story repeats itself. In the end, it’s a powerful song about guilt, regret and the search for redemption.
Johnson stands as one of the few beacons of grit, emotion and honesty remaining on country music radio, and his success offers hope that some of the many other artists and songwriters with that spark might still have a chance to reach a wider audience.