The That tent was the unofficial home of country music on Sunday, with Jamey Johnson, Kris Kristofferson, and Miranda Lambert going back-to-back-to-back, but Johnson's band was the one of the three that revealed an edge, like they had something to prove.
Hitting the stage looking like nervous-energy extras from an episode of Intervention's Meth Mountain, they kept the large gathering spellbound over the next hour and 15 minutes with the sort of gut-punch storytelling, intuitive playing, and grand melodic sweep that country does better than any genre.
Early on, Johnson cleared the air with "The High Cost of Living," a philosophical drug tale of a guy who threw his life away to smoke pot in a Southern Baptist church's parking lot (the coke and whores would soon follow). His voice-recalling Willie Nelson at its most vulnerable and Merle Haggard or Waylon Jennings at their ornierest-moaned and murmured in a just-woke-up baritone that suggested the singer was trying to behave respectably and stay off the stuff, but was basically a basketcase capable of just about anything.
On his new double album, The Guitar Song (due September 14), Johnson, an ex-Marine from southern Alabama, chronicles the conflicting dreams and responsibilities that wrack a country music star, and it could prove to be one of the most acclaimed releases of the decade.
He included several of the new songs in the set-"Lonely at the Top" had the protagonist stumbling through the Hollywood Hills, lost and self-mocking; "Macon," a doleful but determined southern rocker, had the band gradually stirring like a genial bear trashing your camp site; and "Cover Your Eyes" took the form of a chillingly somber warning that's coming way too late. Johnson sang the title phrase like it was a worldview, somehow both shrugging off the implications and trembling with a tinge of horror.
After each new song, you could see members of the enthusiastic throng looking at each other with nods and smiles of acknowledgement, like they'd just been privileged to hear a potential classic in the making. The deadpan Johnson frequently smiled, not the usual demeanor for the bushy-bearded cuss; but he genuinely seemed to appreciate the response. And as a reward for the hardcores in the bunch, he knocked out a masterful, bellowing version of Haggard's "Misery and Gin."
Then finally, after all that lyrical turmoil, Johnson closed with "In Color," his 2008 Top 10 country hit, a story told in old black-and-white photos about survival through depression and war and beyond. As the chorus reached its final go-round, the crowd took over and Johnson stepped back, grinning wide. "And if it looks like we were scared to death," shouted the faithful, "like a couple of kids just trying to save each other, you should have seen it in color."
There were certainly plenty of photos taken this day, but seeing country's most colorful and powerful artist at his peak, up close, on a bright Tennessee day, was one of the truest gifts of Bonnaroo 2010.