The Singer, Not the Songs

George Jones proves the honky-tonk spirit lives on

Even before its release earlier this year, George Jones's Cold Hard Truth already was the most hugely hyped album of the honky-tonk hero's four-decade career, for two reasons: an alcohol-induced auto crash that damn near killed him, which would have made the set his last collection of new studio recordings; and because the tracks he was working on at the time with producer Keith Stegall were said to be a return of sorts to the bare-knuckled, heart-crushing country-and-western he helped invent in the Fifties, perfect in the Sixties, and abandon throughout much of the next three decades.

Amazingly the 68-year-old singer pulled through, and even more miraculously, Cold Hard Truth lived up to at least some of the prerelease hoopla. The album easily is the best thing he's done since 1976's Alone Again, and, on a few choice nuggets, it captures Jones singing with real conviction, passion, and interest. Which isn't surprising because, like Elvis Presley in the Seventies, Jones has always risen to the occasion when given a song worthy of his breathtaking voice, a voice that has survived years of hard living, hard drinking, and countless one-nighters at juke joints, auditoriums, and state fairs; a voice that can pull you into the deepest depths of despair. But saying this is Jones's best album in years isn't really saying much; for too many years the singer has applied himself to some of the worst crap ever turned out by the songwriting hacks who toil along Nashville's Music Row.

Of course Jones has never been a stranger to terrible material. You can find silly, often embarrassing stuff among the countless tracks he cut for producer Pappy Daily, who first recorded the Texas-born singer in 1954 for Starday (look no further than "Eskimo Pie"), not to mention the Sixties sides issued on Musicor. His enthusiasm redeemed them, to some extent, but the so-called Possum is revered for the pathos and doom he brought to gut-wrenching ballads such as "A Good Year for the Roses," "Color of the Blues," "Tender Years," and "She Thinks I Still Care," all brutal tearjerkers that rival anything in the pantheon of Jones's idol, Hank Williams. Even in the Seventies and Eighties, when Jones usually was sleepwalking through sessions overseen by countrypolitan hack Billy Sherrill, he could still break you apart when the song fit that incredible voice: "A Man Can Be a Drunk," "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me," "These Days" -- all numbers that mirrored the turmoil of his chaotic life, from his insatiable taste for booze to his disastrous marriage to country queen Tammy Wynette.

Despite spending most of them sober, the Nineties haven't been kind to Jones. He kicked off the decade by signing with MCA, and the six albums issued by the label, which unceremoniously dumped the living legend last year, represent a mishmash of the good, the bad, and the flat-out ugly. For every genuinely great song ("I'll Give You Something to Drink About") there were at least two inane throwaways along the lines of "High-Tech Redneck" and "Small Y'all." He did manage to pull off a guest-laden revisit of his own back catalogue with 1994's The Bradley Barn Sessions, and there are a handful of fine tracks on 1996's I Lived to Tell It All. If someone with a brain approaches his MCA catalogue and pulls the diamonds from the dumpster, the result would be a compilation that might rival Anniversary, the stunning 1982 collection of his Epic recordings.

Until then, Cold Hard Truth (his first release for Asylum) most likely will represent the benchmark of his effort in the Nineties to remain a vital commodity in a fickle music industry that doesn't give a rat's ass about Jones, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, or any of the other survivors who helped to lay the bedrock of honky-tonk history. Nonetheless, it's a spotty piece of work and a weird album, from the creepy and unsettlingly nostalgic booklet, which is packed with career-spanning photos annotated by Jones himself, to the proclamation on the disc's back cover that Truth is "the most talked about CD by the greatest living country singer." The proclamation is true, no doubt, but do we really need to be told this? Shouldn't we be able to hear it for ourselves after a few spins?

Of course we should. Spin it a few times, though, and you'll discover that Cold Hard Truth isn't much different from the albums that proceeded it. True, Stegall's neotraditionalist production is a refreshing change from the assembly-line treatment Jones received at MCA. Ace session pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins dominates the album with teardrop accompaniment that summons the ghost of Floyd Cramer, and the steel guitars, fiddles, and popping guitar solos all sound fine, achieving a mostly successful balance between the past and the present that is neither hokey revivalism nor radio-ready contemporary dreck.

But like every producer from Daily in the Fifties to Sherrill in the Seventies and Eighties, Stegall can't resist saddling Jones with cringe-worthy novelty trash, and there's plenty of it throughout Cold Hard Truth. Granted, Jones has always had a soft spot for wordplay and puns ("Relief Is Just a Swallow Away," "Stand on My Own Two Knees," "Feeling Single, Seeing Double," and "Her Name Is ...," among them), and when he cares, he can still sing the hell out of anything put in front of him. But the bubbly giddiness he brings to Truth's "Sinners & Saints," "Real Deal," and "Ain't Love a Lot Like That" can hardly save these silly songmill trifles. Even "Day After Forever," which begins promisingly as something of a parting shot to a soon-to-be ex, tumbles into trite cliché by the first chorus and never pulls itself out of the sappy mire, despite Jones's impressive, contemplative vocal turn.

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