ON THE TITLE track to his latest album, "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes," George Jones pays tribute to aging country music legends like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. By the time Jones' weary voice engages the question, "Who's gonna give their heart and soul?," the song has turned into a bleak reflection on Jones' own career. He's had so many ups and downs, and so many phases to his career, that lately he just sounds bored with having to carry on.
More and more, the material on Jones' albums is formulaic. The two duets, one with Lynn Anderson and the other with Lacy Dalton, sound contrived, if only because the female voices are so much younger than Jones'.
If the songs that play to Jones' self-pitying, whisky-drenched persona are no more original, they are at least suitable showcases for his vocal genius. This album's few memorable moments come when Jones' rich, deep voice soars into his eerie, clenched-mouth whine and even the tritest lyrics seem suddenly redeemed by the vocal drama.
The least convincing songs on "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes" are the three up-tempo novelty numbers that Jones has neither the humor nor energy for. Back in the late '50s, such rockabilly-style novelties were not only commercially successful for Jones, but also a delightful flip side to his more mournful offerings. "Rockin' the Country," another new release, compiles 12 of Jones' engagingly nutty rockers from 1958 to 1961.
Songs like "White Lightnin'" and "Who Shot Sam" are clever caricatures of hillbilly life, and Jones' considerable vocal range and limber phrasing were pushed to their syllable-stretching limits on these musical romps. There's no doubt that Jones had the teenage market in mind, because his playful use of his basso profundo was lifted straight from the Coasters. This album may not have you crying in your beer, but it sure beats "Hee-Haw."
GEORGE JONES -- "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes" (Epic FE 39598); "Rockin' the Country" (Mercury 826 095-1-M-1); appearing Friday night at the Patriot Center.