The Singer, Not the Songs
Even before its release earlier this year, George Jones' Cold Hard Truth was already the most hugely hyped album in a recording career that has spanned the last 45 years. Why the hype? Two reasons: An alcohol-induced auto crash in March damn near killed the honky-tonk hero, which would have made Cold Hard Truth his last collection of new studio recordings. Further, the tracks he was working on at the time with producer Keith Stegall -- Jones' first tracks for Asylum -- were said to be a return of sorts to the bare-knuckle, heart-crushing country-and-western Jones helped invent in the '50s, perfected in the '60s, but abandoned 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 disc is easily the best thing Jones has done since 1976's Alone Again, and on a few choice nuggets, it captures him singing with real conviction, passion, and interest. Which isn't surprising because, like Elvis Presley in the '70s, 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 honky-tonks, auditoriums, and state fairs; a voice that can pull you into the deepest depths of despair with a simple dive from his piercing tenor to his booming baritone. But saying this is Jones' best album in years isn't really saying much. For too many years, that breathtaking voice has been applied to some of the worst crap ever turned out by the songwriting hacks who toil along Nashville's Music Row.
Jones has never been a stranger to terrible material. You can find silly, often embarrassing stuff among the countless tracks he cut for Pappy Daily, who first recorded the Texas-born singer in 1954 for Starday (look no further than "Eskimo Pie"), not to mention the '60s sides issued on Musicor (which include some bizarre duets with Gene Pitney, of all people). His enthusiasm and sheer talent redeemed them, to some extent, but the so-called Possum -- check out an early photo if you don't know how he picked up the nickname -- is revered for the pathos and doom he brought to such gut-wrenching ballads as "A Good Year For the Roses," "Color of the Blues," "Tender Years," "The Window Up Above," and "She Thinks I Still Care." All of those songs are brutal tearjerkers that rival anything in the pantheon of Jones' idol, Hank Williams. Even in the '70s and '80s, when Jones was usually sleepwalking through sessions overseen by countrypolitan hack Billy Sherrill, he could still break you apart when the song fit that incredible voice. Tunes like "A Man Can Be a Drunk," "He Stopped Loving Her Today," "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me," "These Days," "The Battle," and "The Grand Tour" all mirrored the turmoil of his chaotic life, from his insatiable thirst for booze to his disastrous marriage to country queen Tammy Wynette.
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Despite the bulk of them being spent sober, the '90s haven't been kind to Jones. He kicked off the decade by signing with MCA, only to get unceremoniously dumped by the label last year. The six albums Jones made for MCA 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 return to his old songs 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 -- a rarity in the Nashville music industry -- approaches Jones' MCA catalog 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 will most likely represent the benchmark of his efforts in the '90s to remain a vital commodity in a fickle music industry that doesn't give a rat's ass about Jones, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and the other survivors who helped to lay the bedrock of honky-tonk history. Nonetheless Truth is 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, 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 this 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 than the albums that preceded it. True, Keith 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 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 '50s to Sherrill in the '70s and '80s, 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 (e.g., "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," "You Never Know Just How Good You've Got It," and "Ain't Love a Lot Like That" can hardly save these silly song-mill trifles. Even "Day After Forever," which begins promisingly (and deceptively) 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' impressive, contemplative vocal turn.
On three songs, however, Jones not only salvages this typically mediocre album but reminds you just how brilliant he can be when the singer and the song both click. "The Cold Hard Truth," a recasting of Jones' '60s classic "Your Angel Steps Out of Heaven," finds a somber Possum admonishing a philandering husband, assuming the almost godlike guise of the title -- Jones is the truth. The mournful "Our Bed of Roses" dramatically pinpoints the isolation and devastation of divorce, with which Jones is more than familiar. And with "Choices," penned by Billy Yates and Mike Curtis, Jones has found what may be the greatest autobiographical written-to-order since Jerry Lee Lewis tore into "Middle-Age Crazy" back in 1977. Without a trace of self-pity and with the kind of regret only a beaten ex-drunk can summon, Jones confronts head-on all the mistakes he's made over the years, with the forlorn resignation that there isn't much he can do about it except to try and do the best he can to keep it all together, to atone for the sins and get on with life. And thankfully George Jones still has one.
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