Country Discomforts

You can add the new One Step at a Time to Strait's ever-expanding canon of sure-fire sellers, and throughout the set he plays it like his name. He jerks tears with "You Haven't Left Me Yet," he begs for love on "Why Not Now," he throws up his hands with "That's the Breaks," he loses love amid the bright lights of "Neon Row," and on the slightly rustic title cut he reminds you that he was the guy who ushered in the neotraditionalist movement a good five years before the twang-laden debuts of Travis, Earle, Yoakam, et al. What this music sadly lacks is the lyrical kick and musical innovation of artists working the other side of the Nashville tracks, people like Jim Lauderdale, Mike Henderson, and Buddy Miller. Of course those guys never make it on to the radio unless a big shot covers one of their tunes (as Strait does on One Step with Lauderdale's "We Really Shouldn't Be Doing This"). Which should tell you two things: Strait at least knows a good song when he's offered one, and he knows you don't fix that which is not broken.

And I'll bet at this minute some Music City hack is probably writing a song called "If It Ain't Broke (Don't Fix It)," and if Strait doesn't want it you can bet George Jones will be all over it. He's had a soft spot for goofball novelties as far back as 1955, when he cut the magnificently corny "Eskimo Pie" for Starday Records. Over the past 40-some years he's turned silliness into a thing of honky-tonk beauty on autobiographical hokum such as "No Show Jones" and "I Am What I Am," as well as on hell-raising stompers from "Rock It" and "The Race Is On" to "White Lightning" and "Love Bug." Jones's specialty, however, has always been the exploration of the dark side of the human soul, including the murderous "Open Pit Mine" and the bleak, heart-broken anthems "The Window Up Above," "Color of the Blues," "Tender Years," and "He Stopped Loving Her Today," with his whiskey-warm voice pulling every shred of pathos and despair from the lyrics.

The voice is still there, a bit deeper certainly, but only slightly less dazzling than it was in the Sixties and early Seventies. It's been years, though, since he had a song worthy of his instrument. But even the most bathetic barrel-scrapings foisted on him in the Eighties by producer Billy Sherrill can't compare to the dreck he's recorded during his seven-year association with MCA, which was kicked off with the not-bad And Along Came Jones. Since then he's done the obligatory duets set (The Bradley Barn Sessions), hit new lows with the dumb-ass High-Tech Redneck, reunited with ex-wife Tammy Wynette on the mediocre One, and come closer to genius than you'd expect on I Lived to Tell It All (1996).

It Don't Get Any Better Than This, his latest disc for MCA, comes nowhere near genius. Truth be told, it's a listless, lackluster mess, from the cliched war-vet anthem "Wild Irish Rose" to "Small Y'all," a throwaway that makes "Eskimo Pie" sound like Otis Redding's "The Dock of the Bay." Songwriting legend Hank Cochran turns in "Don't Touch Me," a nice weeper that Jones gives the thoughtful, evocative reading it deserves, but everything else here is hack work. "When Did You Stop Lovin' Me" is as imaginative as its title, "I Can Live Forever" is a gooey religious confection, and "Got to Get to Louisiana" is so dull Jones turns most of it over to guest vocalist T. Graham Brown, a forgotten hitmaker from the Eighties. Jones is in better company on the ready-made title cut, which features cameos from honky-tonk survivors Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Bobby Bare. Too bad the song is an outright lie: Believe me, George, you can do much better than this.

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