Who better to title an album "I Am Waht I Am" (Epic JE 36586) than George Jones? After all, in a career of more than 25 years, Jones has never made any excuses about his unreconstructed brand of hillbilly soul. With scarcely a nod to the latest rock revolutions, with casual disinterest in country's new wave of outlawed desperadoes, and with scant concern for pop crossover, Jones remains contry's best singer, pure and simple.
He is unsurpassed in the expression of lonesome, romantic misery -- the central testimonial state of the honky-tonk tradition Jones inherited from the links of Hank Williams and Lefty Frizell. Sources as diverse as Bob Dylan, Delbert McLinton, ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, Waylon Jennings, Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris have acknowleged his influence.
Jones was recently voted Male Artist of the Year by the Country Music Association, after a decade in which personal problems eroded his career. And lately he has been on the comeback trail -- partly because of "My Very Special Guests" and "Duets," two albums designed to prop him up with the vocal support of assorted country stars on the first and Johnny Paycheck on the second. That help only cluttered the simple settings needed to dramatize Jones' special gift: a distinctive and subdued hill-billy phrasing that transforms maudlin sentiment into aching truth with just a pause and a moan. "I Am What I Am" skips the guests and teams Jones up with songs, 10 of the kind of beer-drenched weepers that have been his best friends since he emerged in Texas in the mid-'50s with twin fiddles as a musical trademark.
The opening cut, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," showcases all of Jones' magic: the clenched-teeth delivery that suggests all of the feeling being fought back, the isolation of single syllables until they melt into puddles of loneliness and depression, and the middle-of-the-throat quivers that tell you "Ol' George is on the verge of falling apart. Billy Sherill's production is a skillfully subdued blend of strings and choruses (used sparingly), as well as the more traditional piano, harmonica and (most important) the pedal steel guitar that provides musical counterpoint to Jones' rampant self-pity.
Most of the songs Jones chooses can be heard as somewhat painful, autobiographical footnotes to the ongoing mini-drama of his life. It's hard to hear Jones sing "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)" or "He's Lovin' Her Is Gettin' in My Way" and not think of Jones' divorce from Tammy Wynette. Once more, Jones leads his bleary-eyed fans through a world where you can only lose the woman you care about, pick up one you care less about and drink in between. It remains country's saddest world of listening pleasure.
If George Jones is country's country singer, then Johnny Cash is America's country singer -- never confined by strictly country conventions. Cash's music has explored American folklore with scholarly precision; has spoken on everything from Indians to prisons to hippies; and has openly embraced the new, progressive country artists whose alienation from Nashville and wildness recall the younger Cash himself.
His latest album, "Rockabilly Blues" (Columbia JC 36779), is an outright triumph, effectively acknowledging his origins with Sun Records (also evoked by a marvelous photo on the back cover of the young Cash and Luther Perkins) without stooping to self-conscious revivalism. Cash is able to turn this trick in part, because he's picked songs from the likes of Rodney Crowell, Kris Kristofferson, and B.J. Shaver -- all restless, muddy-boot songwriters not likely to receive an Opry invitation.Surprisingly the song that most exactgly replicates Cash's Sun sound is "Without Love," written by rock iconoclast Nick Lowe and played in exact Tennessee Three fashion by Lowe, Dave Edmunds, Martin Belmont and Pete Thomas -- all British rockers.
Cash himself remains a formidable and occasionally radical country songwriter. His "Cold Lonesome Morning" offers a striking evocation of crushed romanticism in dark terms of death and murder. Perhaps the album's best song is Bill Joe Shaver's "It Ain't Nothing New Babe," a lilting Texas waltz with some pretty dobro by Jack Clements, Cash's pal from the Sun days. On a slow tune like this, listening to Cash's voice stretch into that marvelously deep, grainy texture makes you feel like you own a piece of the rock.