As Mercury Nashville singer/songwriter Jamey Johnson prepares to join Willie Nelson’s Country Throwdown Tour 2011, he has been busy producing several projects in addition to writing and recording songs for his upcoming album.
After performing and recording in Florida earlier this month, Johnson returned to Nashville, stopping off in his home state of Alabama to see if he could lend a helping hand after it was devastated by deadly tornadoes. Then he attended a listening party at Ben’s Studio in Nashville for the Blind Boys of Alabama’s new album, Take the High Road, which he produced.
Johnson says it was “easy” working with the legendary gospel group on a project that includes Hank Williams Jr., Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack, Willie Nelson and the Oak Ridge Boys. Johnson sang with the group on “Have Thine Own Way, Lord” and recorded such classics as “I Saw the Light,” “Jesus, Hold My Hand,” “Lead Me Home” and “I Know a Place.”
“It was a lot of fun,” Johnson says. “We would play a song that we thought would be a sure fit and look around and not see any reaction. But if we played one that we saw heads bobbing and people singing along, we knew that it would be the next song we were about to go in and cut.”
Johnson also invited music legends such as George Jones and Bill Anderson to stop by during the sessions. Jimmy Carter, a founding member of the Blind Boys of Alabama, told Johnson that he had heard about a bar named Tootsies Orchid Lounge in Nashville, but he thought that it might just be a legend. Johnson not only assured him that the bar really existed, he took him there.
“I wound up onstage there, singing,” Carter says. “That was a great, great moment in my life. And Jamey later took me to the Station Inn, where I sang along with Vince Gill and the Time Jumpers.
“I told Jamey I’ve been in many recording sessions before, but I have never enjoyed one as much as I have this one,” Carter says. “I had a blast. It became like family.”
Adds the Blind Boys’ Ricky McKinnie, “Jamey allowed us to be able to work with some of the people we’ve always wanted to work with, and his spirit has been one that has touched the Blind Boys. I feel like what is from the heart will reach the heart.”
But Johnson gives the credit to the group. “It was very easy to create music with the genius of the Blind Boys behind you.”
Johnson will share the stage with another musical genius when Willie Nelson’s Country Throwdown Tour 2011 kicks off May 27 in Philadelphia. It stops in Nashville on June 3 at The Woods Amphitheater at Fontanel and ends at the famed Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic and Throwdown at Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth.
“I did it last year and had a great time,” says Johnson, who also toured with Kid Rock earlier this year. “I got to meet a lot of new artists and made a lot of brand new friends on it last year. This time when they brought up the prospect of doing a Throwdown Tour with Willie Nelson, it was an easy decision to make. Who wouldn’t want to go on a tour with Willie?”
Johnson doesn’t take spending time with Nelson for granted. “It’s a connection to the country music I grew up listening to,” he says. “It’s a connection to not just country music, but to all forms of music. Willie is a musician first and foremost, and in my opinion, can’t be placed in any one genre.
“This is an experience I can’t really describe in too many words except to say I learn something every time I watch him perform. Every night of my tour is going to end with a Willie Nelson show, and not many people can say that this year.”
They will be joined on the tour by artists including Randy Houser and Lee Brice, as well as singer/songwriter Erin Enderlin, whom Johnson is also producing. “She has a lot of good albums in her future, even beyond this one,” he says. “She is going to have a stellar career in country music, or any music, for that matter.”
Johnson has also been working on his third album for Mercury Nashville, a follow-up to gold-certified The Guitar Song, a 25-song double album that debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. It received two Grammy nominations – Country Album of the Year and Best Male Country Vocal Performance for “Macon” – and received an Album of the Year nomination from the Academy of Country Music. It was ranked No. 5 on Rolling Stone’s Best Albums of 2010 and made numerous critics’ “Best of” lists.
“I’ve written some and recorded a bunch,” he says, “not necessarily new songs that I wrote, but just finding songs that I’ve never done before. That has been a lot of fun for me. Songs that I never thought to break out onstage, it seems kind of easy in the studio when you have a little help from musicians and can put a little more focus into it and a little more style on it. I’ve had a good time with that recently.”