Chris Janson, who has played the Grand Ole Opry more than 100 times, took the Opry stage last summer with a wild look in his eyes and the warning that “it’s fixin’ to get real in here.” With that, the “Buy Me a Boat” singer evoked another mode of transport by kicking off a boisterous version of Johnny Cash’s classic train song “Folsom Prison Blues” with a chugging harmonica solo.
Mid-song, Janson playfully asks the crowd, “Now, would you like to see a hundred thirty-five lbs. of all-white male play this harmonica like Jerry Lee Lewis plays the boogie-woogie piano?” Baiting the crowd by repeating the question, Janson proceeds to jam on the instrument, flailing his right arm to match his riffs and breezing through yet another extended solo at the end that’s capped off with several Elvis-inspired arm windmills.
Janson also performed the 1955 hit on this week’s edition of the Tuesday night Opry, but the song has been a mainstay of his stage act for years. When the Perryville, Missouri, native first came to Nashville a decade ago at 18, he pleaded with the doorman at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge to let him sing just one song with the house band. His performance of “Folsom Prison Blues” impressed Tootsie’s owners enough that he immediately earned a regular gig, packing crowds into the tiny barroom night after night.
Unlike the hardships faced by the imprisoned “Folsom” narrator, Janson’s early career blues were of a more corporate nature as the prolific songwriter — who was having tunes cut by Tim McGraw, Justin Moore, Joe Nichols and several others — signed two record deals that fizzled out before independently releasing his breakthrough hit “Buy Me a Boat,” which got him a contract with Warner Bros. after it became an iTunes sensation.
Next up for the three-time ACM nominee will be a performance of his current hit “Power of Positive Drinkin'” on NBC’s Late Night With Seth Meyers, Monday, March 14th.