Jamey Johnson can do what he wants when he wants.
The country maverick records his songs with buddies when and how the muse directs. He's not constrained by labels or styles, and couldn't care less what critics think -- or anyone else, for that matter.
Need proof? Exhibit 1: While Nashville's mainstream music market is trending smaller -- from singles to six paks to EPs -- searching for more record sales in a market that continues to free fall, Johnson is putting out a double album, "The Guitar Song," that includes 25 tracks and is more than 2 hours long.
"We are free. That's the whole point," Johnson said. "You're as free as you want to be. If you don't like your job, quit, go do something you do like and figure out how to make money doing it. ... But whatever you do you'll do because you wake up every day and you love it, you can't wait to go in and go to work because you can't wait to see what you end up with. That's freedom. I've always had that."
His story resonates in Nashville, especially to a growing number of singer-songwriters who see him as a latter-day outlaw in the mold of Waylon and Willie, leading the way in uncertain times.
The Alabama native shrugs off the outlaw label deftly -- "I've never done anything illegal. That's for the record" -- but cops to demanding the right to chart his own path.
"If the question is, 'Will I cater to your needs?', then the answer is, 'No, I won't.' And that's a choice," Johnson said. "The best sermons that I heard growing up were from preachers who said, 'I did not come here to make you happy. I came here to tell you the truth.' Well that's what I do. I don't care if it makes you happy or it (upsets you) and you decide to pull up your skirt and run down the street naked."
Jerrod Niemann followed Johnson's advice and wound up with both a No. 1 record and single. He thinks other inspired singers are on the way. Niemann, who along with Randy Houser and Shooter Jennings is among Johnson's close-knit circle of friends, believes Johnson's gift is his unique point of view.
"He is one of the smartest individuals I've ever met in my life," Niemann said. "He probably attempts to hide that sometimes, but he is always thinking ahead. He's very intelligent. You're not going to put one past him. He always looks at things from a different angle."
Johnson didn't gain his cult hero status easily. He started as a singer-songwriter on the empty bar circuit after moving to Nashville in 2000, making a living during the day with a pump truck until his songs began to bring him notice. He landed a record deal that lasted just one album, went through a divorce and had few prospects.
The songs kept coming, though, and he never stopped recording. He laid the tracks for his breakthrough, "That Lonesome Song," on his own and signed to Mercury to release it. He went on to win his second Country Music Association Award for song of the year for "In Color" in 2009.
Mercury allows Johnson his creative freedom and he doesn't understand why other artists let record companies meddle with their music.
"I think the difference is when a lot of these guys and gals come to town, they don't know they have that -- the freedom to walk away from something you don't want to do," Johnson said. "Why wouldn't you? Who's telling you you have to be this way or you have to do that? Tell them they don't know what it's like to be you and shut ... up, and go do what you're going to do anyway. And they do usually, eventually, shut up."
He started recording the material for "The Guitar Song" in 2006. He would pop into the studio with his band and co-producers, The Kent Hardly Playboys, in Nashville, Los Angeles and even Key West, Fla., and lay down tracks.
"There was just so much that I just kept recording it, and we still do today," Johnson said. "We still book some time here and there and slip in and record a bunch of stuff for no other reason than we just haven't been in the studio for a while and it's probably time to go record something. Sometimes we'll get a couple of songs in hand and, man, I can't get there fast enough."
"The Guitar Song" is divided into Black and White halves -- modeled after the yin-yang symbol -- filled with originals and covers. It contains at least a half-dozen songs that instantly shoulder their way among the classics. Johnson is funny ("Playing the Part"), tough ("Poor Man's Blues"), nostalgic ("Set 'Em Up Joe"), heartbreakingly tender ("Baby Don't Cry") and restlessly creative. Listen for the small touches between songs like the sound of a hand-cranked music box on "Baby Don't Cry," the R&B chorus in "Macon" and the funky bass on "That's How I Love You."
Some of the songs feel so personal, they hurt. "Cover Your Eyes" can easily stand with "Your Cheatin' Heart" or "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" in its raw intensity. "Can't Cash My Checks" could serve as an anthem for the recession.
"There is a naked honesty about the music that Jamey does," Trace Adkins said. "He's just brutally honest and you've got to respect that and appreciate that. I do."
Johnson might be at his most honest on "Baby Don't Cry," a lullaby to his daughter, Kylee, who's now 6.
She's been on his mind a lot lately as his growing success has pulled him away from Nashville more and more.
"I have to figure out how to make time to come home and raise this kid, too," he said. "That entails a lot more than being a telephone number on the screen or a picture that she sees a lot. To me that's what's taking a high priority these days."