A common misconception is that jazz-playing and country-singing are at opposite poles of musical sophistication. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis has lavishly praised country singer Willie Nelson and titled an unreleased jazz vamp "Willie Nelson," pointing out that he and Nelson share a style of phrasing. They shape lines dramatically with unexpected pauses and harmonies, an evocative grainy tone and wistful understatement.
Nelson made his reputation as a song writer. In recent years, though, he's recorded few of his own songs. Instead he has forced audiences to consider him as an interpretive singer of pop standards and contemporary country songs. With his gravelly Texas drawl and spare acoustic guitar accompaniment, Nelson strips songs down to skeletal essentials and brings new insights to even the most familiar works.
His newest album, "Always on My Mind" (Columbia FC 37951), may be his best interpretive album yet. He wrote only two of the 10 songs, but he takes such unlikely material as Procol Harum's "Whiter Shade of Pale" and Aretha Franklin's "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man" and boils them down to simplicity and sincerity. The best example is Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Where Art Garfunkel and Aretha Franklin filled out the song with lung-bursting embellishments, Nelson carves empty spaces out of the song with his restrained delivery. The tension remains, though, because Nelson accents beats other than those the songs called for. Moreover, his measured confidentiality brings a new sense of privacy to the overly familiar lyrics.
On "Do Right Woman" (written by producer Chips Moman), Nelson brilliantly alternates hoarse whispers with deep-throated yodels. Two other fine Moman compositions also bridge the gap between soul and country styles. No one since Ray Charles has strolled that bridge so confidently. Nelson does it with a limited, scratchy voice and plenty of smarts.
Nelson has fought for and won the right to choose his own material and arrangements. George Jones has never won that right, and he pays the price once again on "Still the Same Ole Me" (Epic FE 37106), with producer Billy Sherrill often saddling Jones with maudlin material and sappy arrangements. Nonetheless Jones is still the greatest pure singer country music has ever known. After a stalemate on the first side, he breaks free for a shining second side.
The album's first single is "Still Doin' Time," which features Jones' gravity-defying leap from bass rumbles to high tenor trills. Yet the effect is lessened by the mechanical backing and a characterless choir. That choir and equally faceless strings completely drown "I Won't Need You Anymore."
The album's lowest moment, though, comes on "Daddy, Come Home," a shameless tearjerker plea from a daughter to her divorced father. The song has a perverse fascination, because it is sung in a squeaky, prepubescent voice by Georgette, Jones' daughter, who lives with his former wife and duet partner, Tammy Wynette. Jones will sing at the Wax Museum Friday, and Wynette sings at Fairfax High School Saturday. They're both managed by Wynette's current husband, George Richey. The mind boggles.
Joe Sun is among a new generation of singers--which also includes John Anderson, Joe Ely, George Strait and Earl Thomas Conley--who favor the old country traditions over current formulas. After three albums and several hits on the independent Ovation label, Sun has released his first major label album, "I Ain't Honky-Tonkin' No More" (Elecktra E1-60010). The record mixes a healthy dose of rockabilly into Sun's previous blend of folk and honky-tonk. Symptomatic of Sun's bold approach is his unorthodox decision to make a country album with his touring band rather than session musicians. This gives the record a spontaneity and rapport appropriate for his loose, personable songs.
Sun doesn't yet have Nelson's intuitive phrasing and never will have Jones' gigantic voice. Yet he has a sure sense of what makes a song tick. On the title song, Sun's voice trades note-bending licks with Neil Flanz's steel guitar to establish a barroom camaraderie. He enlists Earl Scruggs' sons--Randy as slide guitarist and Gary as song writer--to strengthen the folk and bluegrass strains in his music. Sun delivers his own "Boys in the Back of the Bus" with the unrestrained rockabilly fervor of a party on wheels.
The album's best song is Hugh Moffat's "Slow Movin' Freight Train." With the gifted Flanz squeezing out pedal-steel swoons, Sun holds the ballad's long, slow notes till he gives a small helpless quiver of heartache. The song captures the emotional power of unadorned country music that Kenny Rogers and John Denver have diluted beyond recognition.