George Jones

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*****The Best of George Jones 1955-67 (Rhino, 1991)
***1/2George Jones Salutes Hank Williams (Mercury, 1984)
***Rockin' the Country (Mercury, 1985)
***1/2The Best of George Jones (Epic, 1975)
****All Time Greatest Hits Volume 1 (Epic, 1977)
***1/2My Very Special Guests (Epic, 1979)
****I Am What I Am (Epic, 1980)
***1/2Still the Same Ol' Me (Epic, 1981)
*****Anniversary -- Ten Years of Hits (Epic, 1982)
***1/2Jones Country (Epic, 1983)
***By Request (Epic, 1984)
***First Time Live (Epic, 1985)
***1/2Wine Colored Roses (Epic, 1986)
***Super Hits (Epic, 1987)
**1/2Too Wild Too Long (Epic, 1987)
****One Woman Man (Epic, 1989)
***You Oughta Be Here With Me (Epic, 1990)
**1/2Hallelujah Weekend (Epic, 1990)
***1/2And Along Came Jones (MCA, 1991)
****Greatest Hits (Epic, 1977)

If the late Hank Williams established the honky-tonkin' sound of modern country music, George Jones mastered and expanded it. Wedding an awesome technical ability to an intuitive emotional grasp, Jones is a peerless singer. When he's on, you can forget about the "country" qualification. Of course, his recording career (and his recordings) mirror some severely bumpy ups and downs: epic battles with the bottle, a failed picture-book marriage to fellow superstar Tammy Wynette, more booze, drugs, bankruptcy, missed concerts, backslides and comebacks. Just when he appeared to bottom out for the last time, Jones turned himself (and his fading reputation) around with the cathartic I Am What I Am (1980). Amazingly, the musical highs keep on coming.

Even by the conservative standards of country, Jones has remained resolutely traditional. He's never really strayed from the type of romantic material he sang in the '50s, opting to elevate and refine his approach rather than alter it to reflect current trends. Born in 1931, Jones started performing in beer joints around the Texas town of Beaumont in the late '40s. Like many country singers his age, Jones tried his hand at rockabilly in the wake of Elvis. He scored his first Number One on the country charts in 1959 with "White Lightning," but in general those jumpy rhythms didn't suit his more measured, melancholy vocal style. (Rockin' the Country fully accounts for this period, though Salutes Hank Williams gives a more accurate view of Jones's roots and future direction.) "Why Baby Why," the indignant plaint that introduced Jones to a national audience in 1955, epitomizes his heartbroken barroom eloquence. Moving from the tiny Starday label to Mercury, Jones continued to issue complex, devastating reports from the love-wars front: "Window Up Above," "Tender Years," She Thinks I Still Care, "A Girl I Used to Know."

Rhino's The Best of George Jones collects all these gems and more -- plus a generous serving of the up-tempo novelties ("The Race Is On," "Love Bug") that George always throws in for relief. Overall, it's a sterling effort: the only complaint is that this single-disc collection could easily be twice as long without suffering any loss of quality. Jones's late '60s work on the defunct Musicor label is given short shrift: predictably, the jokey "I'm a People" gets the nod over heart-rending slow songs like "Take Me" and "Things Have Gone to Pieces." Still, this is the perfect place to start any country appreciation course (after Hank Sr.), or to fill in the gaping holes in an existing Jones collection.

Signing with Epic in 1971, Jones began a long and fruitful collaboration with house producer Billy Sherrill. Over the years, Sherrill has been accused of overwhelming his charges with gloppy string sections and bland vocal choruses, extracting the twang from their voices in hopes of pop crossover. OK, guilty as charged. But the orchestrated fullness of his countrypolitan (the name says it all) approach can't mask the dramatic complexities of Jones's mature delivery. In fact, it often complements the singer's revealing swoops and telling eye for detail. Sherrill made some damn good records in the early '70s -- especially with Jones, his then-wife Tammy Wynette and rockabilly veteran Charlie Rich. Many of the original Jones-Sherrill albums are out of print, but Anniversary -- Ten Years of Hits renders them (and the 1975 Best of George Jones) irrelevant. All Time Greatest Hits Volume 1 contains surprisingly un-slick remakes of Jones's pre-Sherrill classics.

It's possible to hear Anniversary as the chronicle of George and Tammy's ill-starred union: from the swelling hope of "We Can Make It" to the sensual ecstasy of "Loving You Could Never Be Better," from the impending gloom of "Once You've Had the Best" to the down-and-out misery of "These Days (I Barely Get By)." And it's impossible to hear George and Tammy's duets on their wonderful Greatest Hits as anything but autobiography: from the supportive harmonies of "We're Gonna Hold On" to the estranged monologues of "Southern California." (Recording your wedding vows, as George and Tammy do on "The Ceremony," may be asking for trouble.) After their 1975 divorce, George enters his most dissolute and inconsistent period. Anniversary culls the best from these years: the devastating "I'll Just Take It Out in Love" and laugh-to-keep-from-crying novelties like "Her Name Is . . ." (where the steel guitar provides the punch line). My Very Special Guests matches a somewhat under-the-weather Jones with duet partners from Waylon 'n' Willie to James Taylor and Elvis Costello: the results are mixed, to say the least.

Jones emerges from a hospital stay -- weathered and wiser -- on I Am What I Am, from 1980. "He Stopped Loving Her Today" looms as his tragic masterpiece, while "I'm Not Ready Yet" displays fresh resolution and "I've Aged Twenty Years in Five" glows with pitiless self-recognition. Sherrill provides a slightly harder-edged honky-tonk backdrop, making I Am What I Am their best regular-issue album by a country mile. Though its core tracks appear on Anniversary, this album easily stands on its own.

It's been hit or miss for George Jones ever since. Appropriately, his most satisfying album of recent years is the odds 'n' sods hodgepodge One Woman Man. But when he connects with a good song, you'll forgive him the next half-dozen washouts and walk-throughs. Try Wine Colored Roses from 1986: "The Right Left Hand" and "Don't Leave Without Taking Your Silver" fully measure up to Jones's better-known milestones. Avoid quickie repackaging jobs like By Request, Super Hits and Hallelujah Weekend.

Hooking up with New Traditionalist producer Kyle Lehning simply gives Jones another chance to quietly show the young bucks how it's done. On And Along Came Jones, this veteran singer reasserts his interpretive power without making a big fuss about it. Nobody but Jones could read such profound meanings into those "little yellow post-it notes" scattered throughout "You Couldn't Get the Picture." Now that it's too late, he can't forget his departed lover's final missives -- so he makes sure that you won't, either. More than three decades after he first recorded a song called "Ragged But Right," George Jones still fits the bill. -- M.C.