Mercury Records released Jamey Johnson’s “High Cost Of Living” to radio stations exactly one year ago today, knowing all along that it would be a real battle to get it onto the airwaves. It had a rough-and-tumble, throwback sound that owed a huge debt to Waylon Jennings’ late-‘70s records. But even more daunting were its lyrics, which found the singer in jail after going off the deep end with drugs, alcohol and a prostitute.
It did not become a hit, but it did earn the respect of Jamey’s fellow artists and musicians. “High Cost Of Living” is nominated for Best Country Song and Best Country Male Vocal at this Sunday’s Grammy Awards. The CD, That Lonesome Song, competed for country’s Album of the Year honors in last year’s Grammys, as well as the Academy of Country Music Awards and the Country Music Association Awards, and “High Cost” was a key part of the project.
“That song was the first song on the album for a number of reasons,” Jamey says. “One is it was the first thing we recorded. But I wanted the people who plug this thing in — it’s probably the most hardcore song on the album in terms of content — but I wanted you to know this album wasn’t put together ‘cause we thought we could get it on the radio, and it wasn’t put together because we thought it was super-commercial. There’s a lot of things that this album covers that aren’t necessarily popular topics, ‘cause nobody wants to deal with ‘em. But they’re there, you know.”
The song did make it all the way to No. 34 on the Billboard country singles chart, though the controversial subject matter kept it from joining the Top 10 ranks of Jamey’s previous release, “In Color.” But while the real message of “High Cost” might have been misunderstood by the masses, Jamey’s central audience totally got it.
“When you go see him live, everybody sings all those lines, and then the good thing about the song is it is a positive song,” co-writer James Slater says. “At the end, the guy’s in jail, and I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said, ‘Man, that was me four years ago.’ Or ‘I heard that, and I gotta get my act together.’ That’s a beautiful thing, and it’s because we didn’t hold back as far as sayin’ what’s real. That’s a lot of people actually [who’ve said those kinds of things]. It’s not my experience, but it’s an experience.”
Ultimately, Jamey isn’t gauging his music by its peak position on a chart. He’s more concerned with its ability to reflect the world accurately, even if the emotions it stirs up make the listener uncomfortable.
“Music can’t be Prozac,” he says. “You can’t just sing somebody into bein’ in a good mood on the way to work. It ain’t gonna happen. I’m not sayin’ a guy that’s in a good mood don’t deserve his song, too. But what about the couple that’s goin’ through hell, and nobody knows that they have to put on a front when they’re out in public and smile and look like everything’s cool, and then they get home and throw dishes at each other ‘til they go to sleep? What about those guys? They need to be fed, too. Just to know that they’re not alone sometimes just makes ‘em a little more calm about it. You just lay back a little bit — ‘I’m not crazy. Somebody else is doin’ it, too.’”
The Grammys will be presented live on CBS Sunday from the Staples Center in Los Angeles. You can watch the pre-telecast, too. It will be streamed live on grammy.com beginning at 4 p.m. ET.