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Jamey Johnson is shocked by Grammy nods

“For us to even be nominated for those awards, I feel like we might as well have won them,” said the 33-year-old singer/songwriter.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Jamey Johnson strokes his long scruffy beard, pauses a moment, then unloads.

“I saw one write-up somewhere that said I was up for a Grammy against my friend James Otto. When I see writing like that and the terminology that people use, it bothers me,” he said. “That ... might fly when you’re talking about an ‘American Idol’ competition, but I’m not ‘against’ any of my friends.”

Johnson, who speaks in the same low rumble in which he sings, was talking about his nomination for best male country vocal performance for “In Color.” He’s got two more nominations at Sunday’s Grammy Awards: best country song for “In Color” and best country album for “That Lonesome Song,” the latter putting him alongside George Strait, Patty Loveless, Randy Travis and Trisha Yearwood.

“For us to even be nominated for those awards, I feel like we might as well have won them,” said the 33-year-old singer/songwriter.

Awards were the last thing on Johnson’s mind when he began recording “That Lonesome Song” in April 2007. He’d been dropped by his record label, gone through a divorce and become a self-described recluse.

When he called some of his musician buddies to head into the studio, it seemed as much for therapy as for making music.

“When we first got in there,” he recalled, “about two and a half hours were spent passing a whiskey bottle, telling stories and jokes and catching up.”

The session was seat-of-the-pants. “There was no plan. There was no ‘We hope we can turn this into something.’ It was nothing like that. We didn’t have anybody to turn it in to,” he said.

Word-of-mouth leads to successHe wound up with a collection of rootsy country songs, most of which he wrote or co-wrote, that deal frankly with divorce and addiction.

Johnson posted the songs on his Web site and word spread. A couple of labels wanted him to smooth the rough edges, but he refused.

Mercury Records accepted the album pretty much as is and signed him in March. The disc was released in August, and by December it was on many year-end “best albums” lists.

“A bunch of us here at the label were fans of that record before we even signed him,” said Luke Lewis, chairman of Universal Music Group Nashville, which includes Mercury. “I’m an old man, and a lot of those records back in the day that he’s a fan of, they sound similar in terms of being a little raw.”

Raised on a small farm near Montgomery, Ala., Johnson moved to Nashville in 2000 after eight years in the Marine Corps. He ran his own construction firm for four years and sang songwriters’ “demo” tapes on the side. He co-wrote Trace Adkins’ salty hit “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” and George Strait’s 2007 CMA and ACM song of the year, “Give It Away.”

BNA Records signed him in 2005 and he had a hit that year with “The Dollar,” a song about a little boy who wonders how much of his busy father’s time he can buy with some change he finds in his room.

But Johnson drank heavily and rubbed some industry insiders the wrong way. “He had a bit of a reputation as a bad boy,” Lewis said.

BNA dropped him after his second single tanked.

About the same time, his marriage fell apart and Johnson says he became a recluse for a year, during which he sobered up and wrote most of the material for “That Lonesome Song.”

But don’t ask him to analyze the record too much. He won’t do it.

“People take those things in so many different ways. That’s why we made it that way, to leave it open to their interpretation,” he said.

When pressed a little harder, he doesn’t budge. “Again, to say what it means to me is to take away what it means to them.”