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Raised Like That (self-released)

LISTENING TO THE DEBUT album from massive-star-to-be James Johnston brings to mind a variation of that old joke about vegetarians. In this case, how do you know he’s a country singer singing country songs? Don’t worry, he’ll tell you.

After opening the album by telling us the various good/godly/grand things living in the country (which country? Ah, more on that soon) that have contributed to him being Raised Like That, Johnston follows it with Keepin It Country (the dropped g hardly accidental), then a song about country boys called Country Boys, after which, while daringly not even mentioning it’s a country town that he’s singing about, there’s Small Town Girl, about, you’ll be shocked to hear, a girl from a small town.

That small town reappears later in, wait for it, Small Town, with maybe the same small town girl who is the titular subject of A Country Girl Can. Can what? Well, a country girl can among other things, change a tyre (or should we spell it tire in this case?) “with her own two hands”. No doubt this country girl can understand how after “we’ve been grinding, we’ve been working all week” that “there ain’t nothing like a rowdy hometown country crowd” ready to turn the lights down low and crank those speakers up loud for a little dancing in an … Old Country Barn.

Ah, so country music then? You should have said James!

For good measure, or for slow learners, Johnstone tops off the opening five song bracket with a parched soil/starving cattle/empty bank account/lord help us all song, This Land Is Killing Me, which is followed by a song of appreciation of the “40 acres” run by four generations of this family now being sought by a heartless type who doesn’t understand that this place is Worth Its Weight In Gold.

Too much signalling? Bro, “if you ain’t one of us you won’t understand” he explains in a song called My People, about, yes, his people, not yours, who dress up even though “by the end of the night we’ll be dancing in the mud”. The little scamps.

His people incidentally are from Wingham, up the NSW coast. In Australia. Which is obviously why Johnston sounds like he’s walked in from an Ozarks fishing spot or maybe a North Carolina tobacco farm. That’s how they talk up there you know in deepest, darkest mid-coast NSW. And presumably Ingham, as he explains in that opening title track, is where “I was raised on a Main Street where everyone knows your name/Clear skies and late nights/Hanging out at football games”.

Doing what exactly Jim-Bob? “Raised up on Friday nights, sneaking into small town bars”. Of course, and what were y’all listening to in Ingham when not making your own moonshine and setting traps for varmints? “[I was] raised up on country songs, singing out 'bout broken hearts/Raised up on 40 acres at the end of an old dirt track.”

Formative times hunting coyotes and driving Dodge pickups no doubt. “I wouldn't be who I am right now if I wasn't raised like that.” True dat buckeroo, true dat. As we see in these punchy, just-enough-harmony/just-enough-family (both baby voices and a young lad’s spoken word contribution appear) songs, with mildly driven acoustics, skedaddling electric guitars, upfront drums and semi-obscured banjo, all of which you can drink and dance to, with your thumb hooked in your belt loop while sinking a Schlitz or a Jack and water back.

This is why, in the words of his PR spiel, James Johnston “sings of country life with an authenticity that makes a drover cry, a farmer sigh, a young jackaroo spin, a country girl smile and city folk wistful”. You can practically smell the authenticity washing over you as you listen, don’t you think?

Interestingly, unlike the majority of his peers, Johnston hasn’t gone looking for the Nashville co-writes or even the local hitmaker collaborations: all 20 (!) songs are self-penned and already have earned him a gold record for the Raised Like That single, with a high chart debut expected for the album at the end of this week. As a wholly independent artist. Whatever you may think of their motivations or inspirations, these songs and the production of Liam Quinn and Justin Wantz, are skilfully and super professionally done. Indistinguishable from the source material, which is in these circles the goal after all.

Which makes it even more amusing when you hear that Johnston has been getting up the noses of a number of local male artists, those who have been putting in the years trying to do what he has done but to noticeably less effect, by demanding – and most galling of all for them, easily getting - high appearance fees. Up to twice as much. Even before the release of this debut.

Still, they won’t have James Johnston around to worry about too much longer: there is an impending American deal that should see him at least match if not overtake the Hillsong Keith Urban, Newcastle’s own Morgan Evans, as the fresh face of high-gloss, high-concept mainstream music.

Country music, that is. Did he mention that?


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