If country music had its own Mount Rushmore, no doubt the marsupial visage of George Jones would be there carved in stone. As far as country voices go, few if any today possess the qualities that Jones keeps alive from the rural American vocal tradition. His supple, honeyed tenor can drop like a bucket deep into the dark waters of heartbreak or fresh springs of homey humor. Conversely, it can hover in the air above a melody like a hummingbird and then effortlessly dart from one level to another.
And the George Jones story is a classic tale: dirt-poor East Texas boy with a gift works his way up through the honky-tonks, impresses with his first (Houston-recorded) independent releases, wins Nashville record deal, becomes a star. He marries, duets with and divorces a country music queen, then descends into a dangerous yet also memorably zany bout of boozing and coking, gets clean, remarries and at last wins contentment.
Unlike some of the other faces that should be carved in country's Rushmore (Johnny Cash's and Merle Haggard's, to name two), Nashville still condescends to make records with Jones. And thank the good Lord that they do, since his latest, The Rock, is dyed-in-the-wool classic George Jones. It may have taken three of Music City's top producers to get there, but this 12-song collection reminds why the notion of commercial country wasn't a bad thing at all from the 1950s through the 1970s.
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Yes, there are strings and even whiffs of schmaltz here, but Jones brings a dignity and grace to such trademark old Nashville tactics. In fact, he even makes them sound relevant in an era where squealing guitars, fiddles on fire and earthshaking drums are de rigueur in the stuff that calls itself country. And of course, The Rock has one of country's most emotive singers putting his stamp firmly on the heart of some darn good songs. (The weakest link is the current single, Jones's duet with Darth Brooks on the cutesy-pie "Beer Run.")
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Live, Jones still has it. Sure, it's become a show rather than the experience it was in his younger heyday. And he can be corny, but with a winning self-deprecation. But then there will be those moments where that voice does something little yet amazing that cuts to the gist of the notion behind the lyric, and you realize that you are in the presence of true greatness.