Jamey Johnson's two-CD album, "The Guitar Song," opens with a country music star telling a stranger in a bar how lonely and pressured life has gotten since hitting the top. The stranger promptly sets him straight. "It may be lonely at the top," the guy retorts, "but it's a (expletive) at the bottom."
Co-written by the late Keith Whitley, "Lonely at the Top" sets the tone for Johnson's first release since hitting the big-time himself with his 2008 album, "That Lonesome Song." For one, the song spikes a pedal-steel driven country shuffle with blasts of Southern-Rock guitar. It's a pattern Johnson continues through the album, balancing traditional country with contemporary splashes that often stretch into lengthy instrumental jams.
Moreover, the lyrics repeatedly draw on class tensions between poor and rich. Johnson clearly sides with the have-nots, inducing defiance in character-driven story lines that avoid the rural-pride cliches so popular in country songs these days.
Among its 25 songs, "The Guitar Song" includes three other covers: Vern Gosdin's "Set 'Em Up Joe," Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times," and Mel Tillis' "Mental Revenge" (with Johnson taking cues from Waylon Jennings' version). Those songs expose Johnson's influences, but it's how his originals evoke heartache and his place in the world that will perpetuate his high standing among current country contenders.
CHECK OUT THIS TRACK: The title song, an acoustic swamp-blues number, transcribes a conversation between two pawnshop guitars. One, voiced by Country Music Hall of Fame member Bill Anderson, has been owned by country legends; the other, represented by Johnson, has toiled in out-of-the-way barrooms. They find common ground because both have helped heal heartaches and sell drinks, and commiserate on how both yearn to return to the stage.