Jamey Johnson & Blind Boys of Alabama Take a Country ‘Road’
Jamey Johnson received the Rising Star Award at the Alabama Hall of Fame induction ceremony last year, and although the honor was great, he received an even better gift during the show when he met and performed with famed gospel group, the Blind Boys of Alabama. Their rendition of ‘Down By the Riverside‘ cemented a fast friendship, and it wasn’t long before the Boys were in Nashville recording their first-ever country effort with Jamey at the helm. When word of the project hit the streets, Nashville hitmakers lined up at the door of the studio clamoring to participate, and the resulting CD, ‘Take the High Road,’ is a soul-stirring, rafter-shaking collection of gospel tunes served up country-style and packed with as much reverence and inspiration as a month full of Sunday sermons. Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack, and the Oak Ridge Boys all lend their voices to the album, and, fittingly, Hank Williams Jr. takes a turn at the mic with the Boys on his father’s classic, ‘I Saw the Light‘ (a tune founding member Jimmy Carter remembers hearing on the radio growing up). An intense, softspoken individual who usually lets his music do the talking for him, Jamey was something close to jovial with a sparkle in his eye as he sat down to talk, surrounded by the Boys, about this latest musical labor of love.
Did you all have any idea when you first met at the Hall of Fame that it would lead to this wonderful project?
Jimmy: When we first met Jamey down in Montgomery at the Hall of Fame, me being a country music fan, and him being a country singer, we just hit it off immediately. We said we need to make a record, and the next thing I knew we were in the studio!” [laughs] We always have dreamed of doing a country album, so when the opportunity to do it presented itself, I was overwhelmed. I had a ball doing it. County music has a story, has a message. So does gospel. It fits together in that sense. And Jamey, he and I are from the old school, we like the old stuff, so I was fortunate to meet country music folk I have always wanted to meet in my lifetime and never have until I met Jamey. That was the most fun making that album.
Jamey: He thinks I invited all those people, but truth of it is, they invited themselves. They heard the Blind Boys were in Nashville making a record and they were lined up out the door.
Jimmy: All I can say is, anybody I wanted to meet, I had a chance to!
Did you find that there were times in the studio when you were so busy telling great stories about your favorite country legends that you got off track a little bit?
Jamey: I don’t even know that there was a track! [laughs] But the spirit of the whole album can probably be wrapped up when I asked Billy if he was ready to sing this one song and he said, “Man, all I need is some words!” And he was exactly right on all accounts — all they needed was some words!
Was there any one moment in the making of this album that really stood out? I read you recorded each song in one take all together in the same room, which is unique by today’s recording standards.
Jamey: There were so many moments, you couldn’t count them all. We’d get done tracking a song and look around and see the souls pouring out of eyeballs. And that happened more times than not … people were sharing stories in between songs, and that led to the next song. People were sharing experiences, but also sharing this as an experience, and that was something we all get to take with us. I was proud. I was touched and moved every single day — it was a very religious experience.
It sounds like the spontaneity was contagious. After you did one track, did it seem to build?
Jamey: It was like a flying trapeze with well qualified entertainers and well qualified musicians. But better than that, even though everybody came with their own resume, everybody came to make music. And did so in a grateful way that the Good Lord moved us to do in that old recording studio.
Ricky McKinney: The feeling was so deep. Jamey came in and let us sing what we felt … it was a lot of country, but there was a lot of soul in it too.
Jimmy: What I liked about working with Jamey is he doesn’t try to dominate the session. He lets you put your own input in, and it became like a family. I told Jamey I’ve been in sessions before, but I’ve never enjoyed any like I did this one! I had a blast!
Jamey: The best part about the whole session was the food. [laughs]
Ricky: Looking back, it all made a difference. We were all of one accord; it’s not about the Blind Boys, it’s about God being pleased about it, and I think He’s pleased about this record. Jamey Johnson has proven to me to be the kind of person to have respect for the Blind Boys, and we have respect for him, and that’s what made the difference.
Jimmy: I found out in doing this record that we came to the right place. Nashville, they have great musicians here — they can adapt to anything! And to make me really, really love Jamey — I already do, but to make me love you even more, let me tour with you! We want to hang all the time! [laughs] We all have great love for each other, that’s one thing for sure!
Jamey: We’ll have to do that in one Hyundai! [laughs]
I also heard Jamey took you around town and showed you some Nashville hotspots like Tootsie’s.
Jimmy: Now that’s a good story! Oh what a night! I thought Tootsie was a myth! I didn’t know there was a real Tootsie’s bar! Jamey said, “You wanna go?” And I said, “Yeah I would like to go out there!” So next thing I know, we were in a stretch limo going down there in style! Lee Ann Womack is on this record, and we ended up going to her house visiting her. We had a ball in Nashville!
Jamey: And we went to see Vince Gill and the Time Jumpers at the Station Inn. Jimmy took them for a ride, got onstage that night with them during the show. I bet that was a treat for them!
Jimmy: It was a treat for me!
Jamey, what other new projects do you have coming up?
I just co-produced a record for a young lady named Mary Henderson, and I’m very proud of that. I got to work with her and some of the Kent Hardly Playboys on that. And other than that, I’m just going to be on the road pretty steady all summer.
Are you enjoying producing? Is that something you always saw yourself doing, and is it a newfound joy for you doing it? Obviously you’ve set the bar pretty high with this first project.
Well you’ve got to start limbo somewhere! [laughs] I have always enjoyed being in the studio and making music. I never was sure how well the producer hat would fit me. But I seem to enjoy it, and if it’s enjoyable I’m gonna keep doing it, and if it’s not, I’m probably gonna move on and do something else.
Do you all feel like this experience with Jamey might have spoiled you a little bit, as far as the studio experience now, since you had such a great time here?
Jimmy: Oh, I know I’m spoiled! They all better be like this! [laughs] I’m ready to go do it again! I’m ready to do another one!
Is that a possibility to do another one? Who would you go for on your next album? Jamey said there were so many people in the studio wanting to record with you, there’s a waiting list now!
Jimmy: I wanted George Jones to be on it, I love him, but at the time, he had allergy problems and he wanted to, but he couldn’t record with us. But he said the next one, he’ll be on it for sure. But he came by to be a part of it and watch. And Alabama. Teddy Gentry wants to do something with us. He told us that this evening. So I can’t wait to do the next record!
Jamey, you just returned tonight from a trip to Tuscaloosa to survey the damage from the deadly tornado. How are you feeling after witnessing that destruction?
Jamey: I went there today with an old dear friend, Wayne Mills. Wayne went to the University of Alabama, he played football there and grew up there. And we were not really prepared for what we saw. I spent my early days running from my share of tornadoes like everybody else, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that. I couldn’t be more proud to see how well Nashville reacted to the flood last year, and that’s the same thing you’ll see in Tuscaloosa. You’ll see lights cast out over this devastation, and bodies out there working, and people putting their community back together and helping to put each other’s lives back together. When I rode through, I guess I expected to see some distraught people because they were sitting there in a situation where they should be and have every right to be, but I saw people laughing and patting backs and hugging necks and smiling and being inexplicably happy in a situation where they should be understandably frustrated.
Jimmy: I live in Birmingham and have a brother in Birmingham, and our house is still there and I thank God for that. But like Jamey said, Alabamans are very resilient and we will rise again.
Ben Moore: Everybody’s trying to pick up the pieces, and we are praying that God will continue to bless Alabama, because without God we have nothing. We are praying for those who are less fortunate, and for those that lost their lives and those that lost their homes and families. We are trusting that God will rise up Alabama from this tragedy.