Among the most enduring and wrong-headed myths surrounding the Seventies work of country legend George Jones is that his producer at the time, Billy Sherrill, squandered the talents of the music's greatest singer, outfitting him with overproduced ballads, silly novelties, and an overall slapdash mentality that sacrificed art for commerce. No doubt Jones made some horrid music while toiling on Epic's Nashville assembly line, but he also made two of the finest albums in the pantheon of honky-tonk: 1974's The Grand Tour and, from 1976, Alone Again, heartbreaking sets centered around the unifying theme of romantic destruction and psychological turmoil. Out of print for the better part of the past two decades, both albums have at last been reissued (only in Europe, naturally) on one disc in British Epic's 2 on 1 Country series. Heard as a 21-song chunk of work, The Grand Tour and Alone Again demolish the idea that Sherrill treated Jones with indifference in the studio. Rather, in concept as well as in execution, each set confirms that neither Jones nor Sherrill were sleepwalking through the proceedings but instead assembled collections that were frankly autobiographical, largely pessimistic, and imbued with a sense of artistic purpose Jones only occasionally summoned in the following decades.
Although Alone Again is the stronger of the two albums, together they present every facet of Jones's aching brilliance, from the burning pathos of The Grand Tour and Diary of My Mind to the masterfully dark in-joke Her Name Is ... (The name, by the way, is Tammy, as in Wynette, who George had recently driven away thanks to his drinking and abuse.) Jones confronts his alcoholic demons on A Drunk Can't Be a Man and Stand On My Own Two Knees; reluctantly follows his heart on Pass Me By (If You're Only Passing Through); and acknowledges his own pathetic state on I'm All She's Got. And he sings them all as if every word has to cut to the bone, to reduce the listener to a weeping puddle of tears.
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Meanwhile producer Sherrill drapes these songs in some of his most elegantly tasteful finery, playing down the goopy background chorals in favor of plaintive pedal steel, beautiful touches of piano, lightly shuffling rhythms, and the occasional snap and twang of a Telecaster or a thrashed acoustic guitar. Who knows why this master of schlock gave these songs the production they deserved? Maybe he was in a hurry. Maybe the number crunchers at Epic gave him a minuscule recording budget. I'd like to think it was because he was smart enough to know that the songs on The Grand Tour and Alone Again were something special, something clearly important to the man behind the microphone. Whatever the reason, with these albums Jones and Sherrill produced a pair of masterworks that, thankfully, have been salvaged from the dusty piles of used vinyl.