Jamey Johnson to Perform ’21 Guns’ on PBS’ National Memorial Day Concert

Country star Jamey Johnson is stepping back into the spotlight once again: the acclaimed singer-songwriter and former Marine Corps member will release his latest song “21 Guns” — a tribute to fallen servicemen and women — on May 24, followed by a live performance of the powerful during PBS’s National Memorial Day Concert on May 26.

Many of Johnson’s fans have already gotten an early preview of the song, inspired by attending the funerals of fallen comrades during and after their military service, at his recent concerts. “I have performed the song live quite a bit for the past year or so,” he tells PEOPLE exclusively. “We just went into the studio recently to record it. It timed out perfectly to put it out there on display. It will be in new music we are releasing this year. I am happy ‘21 Guns’ found a home.”

He’s equally pleased to give the song its national broadcast debut at the country’s official Memorial Day remembrance and share it directly with the many fallen veterans’ families, friends and comrades.

“I love the fact that they do all of this for the military for Memorial Day,” Johnson says, expecting that the song will sharply resonate with those who have lost loved ones in military services. 

Johnson, 48, understands the pain of that loss intimately. “I can tell you I have been to a lot of funerals for Marines that I served with,” he explains. “Some of them that died in combat, and some of them that have passed away since. It is always heavy and there is always this realization that your friend is always going to be young. They stop growing at that age, and they will always be that age in your mind.”

“It was written from knowing what I was thinking sitting there at the funeral and knowing what had to be on the minds of their family,” he says, noting that “21 Guns” is written from the point of view of a grieving father. “But it is also my perspective, that I have known these guys since they were young, too.” 

Through the music and lyrics Johnson expressed his belief that the.fallen troops didn’t just become heroes on the day they died, but rather when they stepped up to join the military in the first place. “I just really liked the idea of hearing a loved one say, ‘I don’t need anybody to tell me you are a hero,’” he says. “It’s nice to get the folded flag and go through the ceremony and ritual, and it’s nice to get the 21-gun salute, but I don’t need anyone to tell me that: I have always known you are a hero.”

As a former Marine himself, Johnson reveals that penning the song has “absolutely” proven cathartic, “because even for me, it was the first time I had ever said anything about it.” Performing it for the first time proved nerve-wracking: “I wanted to do it right. I wanted them to get every word of it. When I first started doing it live, I started doing it solo, by myself acoustically, just because I wanted people to listen to it. That would quiet the room down and cut through the noise so that we could all get in where we can hear this.”

Johnson reveals that he felt long destined for military service, leaving college midway for his four-year stint in the Marines. “It was something I’ve always known I was going to do from the time I was a kid,” he says. “There was a fulfillment of an agreement, in a way, that I made with myself when I was young. I was proud of it.” But also understands the emotional complexities the spring our of duty. “When people tell you they had a love/hate relationship with the Marine Corps, I understand that.”

His military experience profoundly affected his life. “It changed every facet of it,” he explains. “When I got to Paris Island, I was still a young college kid. When I got done with the school of infantry, that guy wasn’t around anymore. Everything had changed and everything I’ve done since has been done as a result of that change.” He credits his service for the day-to-day ingenuity required to tackle the tasks before him in his life and career. 

“I am a singer-songwriter, but that is just a title. What I do is I solve logistical problems from sun-up to sundown,” he says. “I have a machine that is running, and I have to find every place that is squeaking and needs oil and everything that is broken and needs to be fixed…The Marine Corps is all about that. it is everybody’s job to do that, by the way. In the Marine Corps, it isn’t just one person’s job. Everybody has to find those problems and address them. It’s everybody’s gig, especially if you are in a leadership position.”

“21 Guns” marks the first entry in an expected string of new music releases from Johnson in the weeks and months the come, after a lengthy stint focused more on live performance. “I wrote a song with Randy Houser, Dallas Davidson and Rob Hatch down in the Bahamas called “What a View.” It is just a straight up-and-down traditional country song and sounds like something our heroes Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran would have written in the ’80s.”

“What a View” turned out to be an especially appropriate title for his latest U.S. tour, which will hit nearly 40 cities beginning with Johnson’s June 20 kickoff show in St, Augustine, Fla., particularly because he goosed his typically stripped-down, low-frills live sets with the addition of video screens and other bells and whistles.

“For 20 years, I didn’t make much about even doing a show — I didn’t think of it like a show: it was just me and my band out here playing music,” he explains, “We didn’t offer up anything in the way of smoke and mirrors. We didn’t offer anything up in the way of a lot of lights or special effects. I am practically the only touring musician out there anymore without a video screen, and I decided we were going to change that up a little bit.” He’ll use the enhancements sparingly to bolster his own style, he vows. “I’m not going to get crazy with it! We aren’t putting in the Kid Rock cannon anytime soon.”

Until then, Johnson’s anticipating the emotions that will be coursing through him when he takes the stage on Memorial Day to perform “21 Guns.”

“I think I am probably going to be standing there thinking about the 30 years that have gone by since I went to boot camp and all of the friends I’ve had over the years, connections that I have made and long-lasting friendships that started back then,” he says. “These are guys that I still keep up with today.”

PBS’ National Memorial Day Concert airs live nationwide on May 26 from 8 – 9:30 p.m. ET. The concert is also streaming on www.pbs.org/national-memorial-day-concert and YouTube, and can be seen by our troops serving around the world on American Forces Network.

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