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Two numbers apiece with singer/guitarist Earl King and the late saxophonist Lee Allen find the musicians dressed to the nines for a look-see around New Orleans. King sings his signature song "Lonely, Lonely Nights" like he means it, and the duo's treatment of "Big Chief" (the classic that King wrote for Professor Longhair) makes a favorable impression with their controlled urgency. Allen, whose horn sparked many Little Richard and Fats Domino hits, adds to the after-midnight mood of "Moanin' & Tinklin'" (one of several Woods originals on the album), and then he and the piano man frolic on "Jump for Joy," an instrumental. As always, Woods keeps his cool while blowing his top.

-- Frank-John Hadley

George Jones
She Thinks I Still Care
(Razor & Tie)

More than any other stretch from George Jones's incredible four-decadelong career, it's his brief early-Sixties stint with United Artists that is most routinely held up as the best-ever work by country music's best-ever singer. After all, it was here that he recorded the unforgettable ballad "She Thinks I Still Care" and the lost-love romp "The Race Is On," two classic singles that would do much to shape Jones's career, and country music, for many years to follow. So I would never in a million years have suspected that the two-disc collection, She Thinks I Still Care: The George Jones Collection, the United Artist Years, could turn out to be so disappointing.

Comprising selections by Rich Kienzle (the ubiquitous C&W liner-note contributor who normally makes up for his lack of critical commentary with detailed histories and impeccable taste), the collection naturally includes each of Jones's 21 charting United Artists singles. This stage of Jones's career stands out as the period in which he finally perfected the legendary ballad style that he'd first discovered on a handful of Mercury tracks ("The Window Up Above," "Tender Years") a year or so earlier, so the best cuts here are, predictably, the slow, sad ones: the murder tale "Open Pit Mine," the self-implicating "I Saw Me," the self-defeating "Sometimes You Just Can't Win," the haunting Melba Montgomery duet "We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds," and the title track. Each of these provides a definitive example of the honky-tonk idiom.

But the remaining nineteen tracks are often a puzzle; they favor unremarkable novelties and pedestrian performances over superior, more representative selections. The first two cuts, the slight "Running Bear" and "Root Beer," didn't chart, and they fail to highlight what was most typical of Jones's art during these years. What's worse, these forgettable numbers have apparently taken the place of essential Jones performances such as "Brown to Blue" (which Elvis Costello would one day cover) and the intensely delicate "Book of Memories." Unfortunately, questionable selections continue throughout the set. (Another example: George's "Faded Love" is a by-the-numbers Bob Wills cover, but we get it instead of "Trouble in Mind" or "Warm Red Wine," Wills-associated numbers that Jones truly made his own.) One also wishes that at least a few of the seven (!) Melba Montgomery duets here had been omitted -- not because they aren't incredible, but because they are already available to fans on the George and Melba installment of Capitol's Vintage series. (Kienzle knows this; he wrote the notes for that set too).

Don't misunderstand. This is, after all, a George Jones collection; it includes music that's undeniably great and important. Too bad it's not as great as it should have been.

-- David Cantwell

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