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Jamey Johnson fires up a Kansas City crowd by tapping deep into country traditions

Jamey Johnson
Jamey Johnson

The night after the country music industry lauded itself at the antiseptic Country Music Association awards show, Jamey Johnson unleashed his unvarnished and unapologetic brand of traditional and outlaw country upon a large crowd at the VooDoo Lounge.

Johnson is a multi-Grammy nominee and a CMA award winner who hasn’t released an album since a Hank Cochran tribute in 2012, a Grammy nominee for best country album.

He has since started his own label and left Nashville behind. His fans, however, have stuck with him as evidenced by the boisterous, wall-to-wall crowd at the VooDoo on Thursday night.

He gave them a hearty two hours of music, a blend of traditional country, outlaw country, Southern rock and Muscle Shoals soul, thanks to his 11-piece band, which included a busy and brassy three-piece horn section and generous portions of pedal steel guitar and Hammond B3 organ.

His set list was a wide-ranging mix of originals and covers, each cast in varying styles. The crowd seemed familiar with most of it, whether it was a hit like “In Color,” which erupted into a sing-along so loud even the band nodded and applauded in approval, or lesser-known songs like “My Way to You” and “Heartache.”

They paid respects to Tom Petty with a brawny and rowdy rendition of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” That was followed by a few more covers: the Band’s “Ophelia” and “The Shape I’m In,” which sandwiched Merle Haggard’s “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink.”

He gave his band mates plenty of spotlight, allowing them space to show off their chops. There were several stellar moments: the noir-ish baritone sax solo during “God’s Problem Child”; the soulful trumpet solo during the dirge-like cover of “This Land Is Your Land”; the wicked pedal-steel jam during “Stay Here and Drink”; and the banjo during the rollicking cover of Jerry Reed’s “Eastbound and Down.”

Johnson is an imposing figure. He’s big and burly with an effusive beard, and he’s a charismatic singer — a no-nonsense baritone.

But he’s not much of a talker on stage. He made a relatively innocuous but unnecessary wisecrack about sexual harassment; otherwise he kept his comments to thank-yous and generic between-song banter.

His heart and his roots are in traditional country, and he shows it musically in many of his songs — some pedal steel here, some banjo there.

He also expresses it lyrically, sometimes explicitly, as in “Between Jennings and Jones,” which takes a stab at the country recording industry for rejecting Johnson because he doesn’t follow fashions or fads: “Put my name on the album but they shelved all my songs / Said I was somewhere between Jennings and Jones.”

Later, he would perform “Kicked Outta Country,” a song he wrote with George Strait (whom Johnson referred to as “King George”) that laments the exile of country legends like Strait and Haggard and Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash by country radio.

Johnson, too, now lives well outside the mainstream, but as he said, he wouldn’t have it any other way: Awards mean nothing if they’re not for creating what you love the way you want to create it.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

Set list

High Cost of Living; I’m No Stranger to the Rain; Mowing Down the Roses; Between Jennings and Jones; Set ’Em Up, Joe; Heartache; My Way to You; That Lonesome Song; Can’t Cash My Checks; Mary Jane’s Last Dance; Ophelia; I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink; The Shape I’m In; In Color; This Land Is Your Land; Willin’; Give It Away; Kicked Outta Country; God’s Problem Child; Eastbound and Down; I Saw the Light/I’ll Fly Away/Will the Circle Be Unbroken.