They all treat country music as if it’s a precious heirloom to be passed down through future generations. The late Merle Haggard saw this in Janson early and believed in him. He could have had anyone open for him during one of his final performances at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in 2014, and he chose Janson for the coveted spot.
“I respect the genre,” Janson told Sounds Like Nashville exclusively. “I love the genre, and I’m a traditionalist in the sense of my reverence for it. However, I’m not afraid to push the boundaries either.”
That last statement is definitely felt on his latest album Real Friends. It expands upon the iconic feel-good vibes felt in Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places” and shows the listener that no one should settle for anything less than the loyalty expressed in his songs. Janson says he didn’t intend on making the album that had themes of positivity and the rare unconditional love that comes with a friendship that lasts a lifetime. It just turned out that way. In turn, he gained some new friends on the journey, including Migos’ Offset, who appears on a remix of the bombastic “Say About Me.”
“It’s just different, but it’s different in a good way,” he says. “I love what I do. Being an Opry member and coming up through the ranks as a history lover of country music as a whole and as a genre, it’s part of who I am.”
He’s also doing the community and life right by giving some rising songwriters their first major cuts on this album. “A lot of the people are getting their first shot on this record,” Janson says, “[whether it be] their first cut, their first time to play on a major debut or their first time producing a major debut. Some people are getting their first singles ever on the radio, and I think that’s a huge deal because being able to bless others through being blessed is the most incredible gift of all.”
Janson will perform Kris Kristofferson’s “Me & Bobby McGee” with Dierks Bentley, Sheryl Crow and the Brothers Osborne’s John Osborne at the 53rd Annual CMA Awards. The all-star collaboration will celebrate the Country Music Hall of Famer, who will receive the 2019 Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award. After the awards, Janson will perform at the 93rd annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on Nov. 28. The Real Friends tour picks up Jan. 10 in Stamford, Conn.
Enjoy more from Janson’s SLN Q&A:
SLN: Tell me about the times in your musical life when your personal standards of friendship were defined?
Janson: Every day, when I wake up with my wife, Kelly [Janson], is defined by that first and foremost. It’s tricky. People say you can’t be friends with your kids, but I don’t believe that. I am friends with my kids, especially my older kids, because they’re my bonus kids. They’re not of my own blood, so I had no choice but to be friends with them first. That’s the only way our relationship was going to be made, and it was a beautifully made relationship. It’s probably one of the strongest ones I will ever have as a stepdad. Though it really comes down to Kelly and me. Having my wife epitomizes friendship to me.
But then there are your chosen friends in music, too. People who were there for you when there wasn’t much of a reason to be.
Keith Urban is the biggest one. I think a lot of that comes from being birds of a feather. The road has not always been easy for him. So many amazing things have happened in his life. He’s so real at the core and has been through it all, so to speak. You’ve got to respect that and hold great reverence for that. People who have seriously had my back are Keith, Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, and Tim McGraw. I have a handful of friends who are more newer friends over the last couple of years that are still good friends like Jake Owen, Chris Young, Cole Swindell, Dustin Lynch, but it’s hard to name one over the other. I would say my closest confidantes are probably Keith and Luke.
Tell me the story of writing “Hawaii on Me.” I think that’s a beautiful way of eulogizing a loved one and keeping their memory eternal. I understand you wrote that with Kelly?
It was Kelly’s idea. Without her title and her idea, the song would have never come to fruition. However, I just loved the story. Some songs you just feel, and some songs you have to work at. And the ones you have to work at, I really don’t like writing. So, I don’t do those that much. But the ones that I can feel in my heart, I can roll with, and “Hawaii On Me” was one of those. It just sounded so real you can’t deny it. We wanted to write a celebration of life song, which you don’t hear about so many of those. But I wanted to do it in kind of a slower Willie Nelson-ish way if you will with just the nylon-string guitar, which was cool. And it was a real simple chat. We cut it right there at my house.
Talk about some of the people behind the songs you’re excited for others to discover?
All the co-writers are awesome to their own credit. I would say “Hawaii On Me,” Kelly being the co-writer on that one — her and Wil Nance. Had she not brought the idea in, nothing would have been written. So, our writer Mitch Oglesby has written with me in the past on “Redneck Life.” He also has the most cuts on this whole album. It’s interesting to see after an album’s done if there is one writer who has more cuts than anybody else, and he does this time around, which is cool. And it’s not purposeful. It’s just the best songs win kind of thing. It’s a pretty cool moment for him. There’s another kid on this record, another young guy who, I won’t mention his name, but I found this out after the fact, that this album saved his publishing deal. He got picked up again by his publisher, and it kept him getting work because he kept getting cuts on this album. That’s really awesome, and it’s pretty life-changing for him and for everybody.
You’re doing this business and life right when you’re lifting others coming up behind you, and opening those doors for them. It sounds like you do based on this conversation.
Kind of. I didn’t mean to or anything. It’s hard to take credit for it. It just happens to be that this album is full of that. It’s very redemptive for some people involved, and for others, it’s life-changing. A lot of folks are getting their first real shot at major success with this album. I just happen to be the vessel in the middle of it, and I will tell you looking at it from the outside in, it’s pretty rewarding.
What do you look for in a friend?
Honesty, really. Also, it’s different with my wife. She’s the obvious choice. She’s my best friend. But with people who are in the business, which is what I’m referring to, I look for people who will still pick up the phone even in the slow times and act like they know you even in the times when they don’t maybe have to. Loyalty, for sure.