Word is Jamey Johnson made it to the Fine Line mere minutes before taking the stage Sunday night, for a highly anticipated sold-out show that was already a makeup from a date postponed in December. At least he had a good excuse this time: He was out at Mystic Lake Casino watching and hanging with two of the guys he so charmingly/blatantly mimics, Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson, both of whom he went on to cover alongside three Willie tunes (!) and more by Hank, the Possom and the Allmans in his generous and generally thrilling 105-minute Fine Line set. The show was a benefit for Viking Jared Allen's Home 4 Wounded Warriors and fell on a night off from Kid Rock's "Born Free" tour, for which Johnson is the opening act (i.e., he's finally reaching a mass audience in other cities).
What a sharp contrast the Mystic show was to the Fine Line: from a stone-cold-sober and mostly gray-haired audience to a younger, elbow-to-elbow crowd that was among the rowdiest and drunkest set of people to be seen this side of the We Fest campgrounds. Just like at Mystic, though, Johnson's fans knew most his songs and sang along as if they were gospel texts -- which was pretty remarkable in his case, since he has only received a smattering of radio play.
Sporting a beard and mane of hair long and unkempt enough to earn him a role in "The Hobbit," the Alabama-bred, deep-crooning outlaw countryman opened with one of his feisty working-man's-blues tunes, "High Cost of Living." From there, though, he kept things relatively slow and even-keel in the first half of the set with a montage of powerful ballads, including Willie's "Moment of Forever" and "Night Life," George Jones' "Still Doing Time" and his own "Can't Cash My Checks," one of the highlights from Johnson's Grammy-nominated 2010 double-disc set "The Guitar Song." Not only did "Checks" give Johnson a chance to show off his smooth roughneck singing talent -- the dude really does have an elegant, Merle-like voice -- it also demonstrated he has one of the most killer bands in country music right now, as the song turned into an extended "Freebird"-style jam.
The tempo picked up sharply with "Playing the Part," and Johnson soon had the crowd eating out of his shot glass with such barroom anthems as Kid Rock's "Only God Knows Why" and the Allman Brothers' "Midnight Rider." At this point, the cynical (and sober) critic in me expected Johnson to wheel out a Jimmy Buffet cover or -- worse! -- the trite hit he himself wrote for Trace Adkins ("Honky Tonk Badonkadonk"). This guy might win over Kenny Chesney fans with all the party-hearty anthems, but he's not going to continue setting himself apart from the crowd that way. Fortunately, he got serious again near the end with some of his smartest originals, including his wry Nashville ode "Between Jennings & Jones," his best crowd-pleaser "Set 'Em Up Joe" and the dark, stormy "Close Your Eyes." There was no encore, and he said all of three words to the crowd, but Johnson still left plenty of strong hints that he'll be back and will be much, much bigger -- and on time, so long as Willie is not in town that night.