Curious how this poignant, acclaimed track came to be? The Tennessean and Nashville Songwriters Association International’s “Story Behind the Song” series has just that. Within, Nashville-connected songwriters discuss one of their compositions – and their latest happens to be Jamey Johnson‘s “In Color”.
This award-winning 2008 hit is now considered a modern classic, and it’s all in the subject matter. Focusing on old black and white photos from World War II and beyond, “Story Behind the Song” now reveals the lyrics were inspired by “old shots shown at Nashville’s annual BMI awards.
“And if it looks like we were scared to death… Like a couple of kids just tryin’ to save each other… You should’ve seen it in color.”In Color, Jamey Johnson, Lee Thomas Miller, James Otto
So how did this come to be? “The song’s co-writer, Lee Thomas Miller, brought up the photos in a conversation with Jamey Johnson. A lightbulb immediately went off for both songwriters, and once they finally got in a room together (along with James Otto), a modern country classic was born,” the Tennessean cites.
Speaking to the series’ Bart Herbison, Miller delves deep into the story behind the song.
Story Behind the Song: ‘In Color’
“The Story Behind the Song for the Tennessean this week (features) one of my favorite humans, Lee Thomas Miller. And it truly is a story song,” Herbison begins the interview. “‘In Color’: You wrote it with Jamey Johnson and James Otto. What is the story behind it?”
“They’re a little younger than me, so their grandfathers were in the Korean War. Mine was in Germany in WWII. But that really wasn’t where the idea started,” Miller starts off. “Jamey was having a lot of success as a songwriter. He was having a number one party for, I think, ‘Ladies Love Country Boys.’ My office was close to BMI at the time and I just happened to finish (writing) early. I was going to walk over to Jamey’s number one party,” the legendary songwriter continues.
“Just the previous year, he had won ‘Song of the Year’ with ‘Give It Away.’ Whispering Bill (Anderson) was (a co-writer) on that song. We all love Bill. He is one of the last people (still writing songs) from that generation. I walk over to Jamey Johnson who is standing outside BMI, smoking a cigarette, as he tends to do. I just walked up, and we started chatting.”
Humble beginnings for a brilliant song. But it gets better – and all through casual conversation.
Jamey Johnson: Man of Few Words
“I said, “Man, I thought about you. Have you talked to Bill Anderson? A couple weeks ago at the BMI Awards, my wife and I were sitting there, and on the screens they will run pictures of past BMI Awards,” Miller recalls. “They may be from last year and then they’ll go back and you may see some from the ’60s. You’ll have lots of black and white pictures. You would have Kitty Wells (standing beside) two people in suits. Being the complete country music nerd that I am, I told my wife that I would love to know who all the people are in all those old pictures,” he adds.
“‘Who are the suits? I wish we were sitting close to Bill Anderson. He’s the only one in this room who could tell us who all of the people in that picture are.'”
As for Jamey Johnson, Miller recalls the country star never said a word during his reeling.
“He listens to the whole story and he takes a big drag off his cigarette and says, “There’s your idea, Hoss. Think that’s something, you shoulda’ seen it in color.”
“I said, “You may be as good as you think you are. Don’t write that with anybody else,” Miller said. Johnson’s response?
“Call me tomorrow.”
“And by 3 o’clock, we had a song.”
“Of course, it took three months to actually get him pinned down to do it, but he called me on the way in that day and said, “I think we got a good idea,” Miller reveals.
“In Color”s third writer, James Otto, came into the mix clandestinely, as well. According to Miller, Jamey Johnson had just canceled a writing session with Otto “the day before.”
“[Jamey] said, “Do you know James Otto?” I said, “Yeah!” He asked if I cared whether [Otto] came in with us because he had canceled the day before. I said, “I don’t care.”
15 minutes on, the songwriting duo appeared before Miller. “And by 3 o’clock, we had a song.”
“It was so unique. It probably took three hours to write. I remember that the bridge said, “That’s the story of my life, right there in black and white.” We had that happening at the end of every verse and one of the last things we did was take that out and put it as the bridge. We worked a lot on the language,” he concludes of the writing process.
What a story, indeed. Give the song, and Jamey Johnson‘s iconic performance, another listen below: