If you could bottle George Jones' voice, you'd probably have half the nation's population of country singers on your doorstep tomorrow. If they'd wait that long.
In the '60s and '70s, when the buzzword in Nashville was "crossover," a lot of people who like their country music straight up took comfort in knowing Jones was ill-equipped to follow Willie and Dolly and Barbara Mandrell up the pop ladder. You can dress up Jones' nasal Texas-bred voice some, soften it with singers and strings and things, but you're still left with a sound as country as country gets.
Ironically, some of the best George Jones songs -- namely tortured love ballads and honky-tonk tunes -- are being recorded these days by others. The competition may be stiffer than ever now that neo-traditionalists like Randy Travis have come into fashion. Jones, however, still manages to find a few worthy tunes for nearly every album.
'Too Wild Too Long' His latest album, "Too Wild Too Long" (Epic FE 40781), continues Jones' long association with Nashville producer Billy Sherill, and in some ways this record may be the definitive Jones-Sherill collaboration. Certainly, all the pieces are here. The songs embrace the usual themes -- love, love lost, sweet revenge, honky-tonkin', autobiography and national pride -- while the arrangements neatly combine traditional instruments with Bergen White's strings and Sherill's studio finesse.
The Jones legend in country music is hardly in question, so it seems sad when he keeps touting himself with tunes like "I'm a Survivor." Songwriters, of course, don't always follow the dictum that you should write about what you know; as often as not, they write about what they know works. Since Jones has had more than a little success in the past singing about his own checkered career, we probably haven't seen the last of such songs.
Falling into the same formulaic trap are tunes like the swooningly sentimental "The USA Today," and the double-entendre-riddled "The Bird," a tale of divorce more than vaguely reminiscent of Jerry Reed's postmarital lament "She Got the Gold Mine, I Got the Shaft."
But just when you think the pickings here are slim, along comes a poignant waltz like "One Hell of a Song" and Jones sings his heart out about a man struggling to salvage what he can from a busted romance, only to discover that "there's nothing good about you being gone, but it sure makes one hell of a song."
Another highlight, this one with a refreshingly loose-limbed arrangement, is the lively remake of Hank Williams' "I'm a Long Gone Daddy," which features Jones at his honky-tonk best.
Merle Haggard: 'Chill Factor' Like Jones' album, Merle Haggard's "Chill Factor" (Epic FE 40986) also travels a well-worn path. The title tune, for example, brings the old Haggard hit "If We Can Make It Through December" instantly to mind, but the selection doesn't sound nearly as programmed or contrived. If the songs sound familiar, it's only because Haggard wrote most of them and coproduced the others.
Not surprisingly, some of Haggard's best lyrics are personal reflections on love or a life spent, as often as not, searching for it. It's a recurring theme throughout the album, sometimes evident on up-tempo tunes like "You Babe" but more often on outright weepers like "We Never Touch at All" or "More Than This Old Heart Can Take." Plus, there are a couple of other Haggard staples -- fond and not-so-fond remembrances of times past like "Thirty Again" and "1929." They're sung, as always, in Haggard's haunting, low-key manner.
'Blue Skies Again' Heartaches and hard times are no stranger to John Anderson's music either. Despite its title, his new album, "Blue Skies Again" (MCA 42307), is not exactly for the romantically despondent. Though there are a few exceptions -- notably the country outlaw duet with Waylon Jennings, plus the cleverly arranged title tunes and the engaging "When Your Yellow Brick Road Turns Blue" -- Anderson focuses on tormented affairs of the heart. Happily, it's one of the things he does best. His unvarnished voice consistently conveys the anguish and mixed emotions that make a good country song with a universal theme like "Quittin' Time" sound as personal as a whispered prayer.
Vern Gosdin: 'Chiseled in Stone' Similarly, singer Vern Gosdin counts off heartaches by the number on "Chiseled in Stone" (Columbia FC 40982), but he also wipes away the tears with the delightfully harmonized western swing tune "Tight as Twin Fiddles." A fine singer, Gosdin has the distinct advantage of relying mostly on Hank Cochran tunes here. Everyone from Patsy Cline to Willie Nelson has successfully drawn on Cochran's talent at one time or another, and Gosdin's selection of tunes (as well as his collaborations with Cochran) are first-rate. Perhaps the best thing you can say about this album is that the performances are every bit as good as some of the song titles, which include "Nobody Calls From Vegas Just to Say Hello" and "There Ain't Nothin' Wrong (Just Ain't Nothin' Right)."