Jamey Johnson never smiles in his publicity photos.
He looks like someone who's been awakened in the middle of a deep slumber, rudely, a grizzly bear whose hibernation has been interrupted, his frost-bitten glare its own kind of winter.
Combined with a thick tangle of biker-worthy whiskers befitting a "Sons of Anarchy" extra, the guy just exudes an air of unapproachability, like, he's the last dude you'd want to see on your front porch if you owed him money.
It doesn't seem like an act, a pose: Johnson seldom grants interviews, and when he does, he's the opposite of the media-coached princes and princesses prevalent in Nashville these days.
He's an ex-Marine, and has the no-nonsense demeanor of a man who used to load and fire mortar rounds for a living.
And yet, it's hard to rationalize all this with Johnson's latest album, "Living for a Song," a tribute to country great Hank Cochran, a balladeer with few peers, whose songs are pretty much the inverse of Johnson's perma-scowl.
Still, there are connections between the two.
Johnson and Cochran, who died in 2010, share a similar blue-collar background.
Whereas Johnson served in the armed forces, Cochran worked in the oil fields of New Mexico before becoming a hit songwriter for the likes of Patsy Cline, George Strait, Merle Haggard, Ronnie Milsap, Ray Price and others beginning in the '60s.
But what really unites the two is their shared affinity for mining tenderness out of tough luck, of making heartache sound almost inviting.
Cochran's "Make the World Go Away," which became one of Eddy Arnold's signature songs, is so beautifully broken, it's nearly impossible to listen to and not think about lost loves of the past.
And then there's "I Fall to Pieces," which Patsy Cline would make famous as one of the most pure and wrenching expressions of longing ever recorded.
Those two tunes lead off "Living for a Song," with Johnson duetting with Alison Krauss on the former and Merle Haggard on the latter, his voice simultaneously stout and sturdy, supple and vulnerable.
The rest of the album sees Johnson collaborating with Elvis Costello, George Strait, Willie Nelson, Lee Ann Womack and others, their versions of Cochran classics by turns reverential and revisionist.
In a way, the album dovetails nicely with Johnson's career arc: He's come into his own by serving as a bridge between country's outlaw past and its decidedly more cosmopolitan present.
Both in form and function, "Living For a Song" underscores this point.
"It's not healthy, they say, to relive yesterday," Johnson notes on "Way to Survive," which Ray Price originally sang. "But for me, it's a way to survive."
It hasn't always been this way.
Johnson first made a name for himself as a songwriter co-penning hits such as "Honky Tonk Badonk-A-Donk" for Trace Adkins, hardly a dyed-in-the-wool country chestnut.
But since earning success as a solo artist, Johnson has made a career out of delivering perhaps the most uncompromising take on contemporary country in terms of knocking the dirt off the music's roots and making it something both venerable sounding and yet in line with Nashville's modern mores.
He's not a completely defiant figure by any stretch, rather he sounds at home on current country radio at the same time he subtly tweaks the format with a bygone blend of wistfulness and bravado.
Johnson's last record, 2010's sweeping double album "The Guitar Song," set his cavernous baritone against an alternately soulful, organic and finely honed backdrop of backwoods blues and country western swing.
It was a critical success if not a commercial smash.
Basically, "The Guitar Song" solidified Johnson as a country music backbone, important to its structure and well-being, but buried beneath the surface.
Kind of like Hank Cochran himself.
Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.