[21 June 2009]
The story of George Jones’ transition from scrappy, flat topped hustler (who doubled as rockabilly singer Thumper Jones on a brilliant Starday single) to the white haired crooner guided by Nashville Sound producer Billy Sherrill is a familiar one at this point. And now, thanks to the reissue imprint American Beat’s single disc release of A Picture of Me (Without You) and Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half as Bad as Losing You), it’s become easier to inspect the original documents that initiated the shift.
As some of the strongest material from one of the genre’s greatest singers, it’s not hyperbole to recognize this as some of the most piquant country music ever recorded. Even as Jones’ sound drifts from the white-hot starkness of his idol Hank Williams, these performances are, in some sense, a logical continuation of Williams’ work: they can be desperate without being sentimental, lighthearted without being lightminded, and it’s the same kind of weary heart beating in both cases. Similarly, one of the major impulses often recognized in country is music is a collision of the sacred and the profane. Yet on these Epic recordings, Sherrill’s lush soundscapes and Jones’ vocals forge another fascinating contradiction: the earthy and the urbane. While Sherrill’s famous string figures appear, most prominently on Nothing Ever Hurt Me‘s version of Lefty Frizzell’s “Mom and Dad’s Waltz”, the combination of sweeping steel guitar and backing vocals—provided by the Jordanaires and the Nashville Edition—usually fills that sonic space, fattening the songs’ undercarriages and offering them up on delicate beds of sound that underline the an oddly polished emotional fragility. Another feature of Sherrill’s Nashville Sound that stands out here is the presence of a distinctive piano sound weaving in and out of the vocal lines, alternately adding ballast and contrapuntal texture to those melodies. It’s a clever production move, especially with a voice as fluid as Jones’, and a nice illustration of the sophistication of Sherrill’s approach.
These records are not just examinations of brilliant singing but, in several instances, present songwriting of a certain Nashville vintage at its finest. The songs are full of Chekovian props and scenes: folded clothes and empty hangers, church pews and barstools, bathroom graffiti, a bouquet of “second handed flowers”; weddings and deathbeds and weepy memorials. Particularly strong are the sharply crafted vignettes, such as Tom T. Hall’s “Second Handed Roses” and Peanut Montgomery and Dallas Frazier’s “What’s Your Mama’s Name?”, songs that, with Jones’ swelling narration, take on all the gravitas of thumbnail operas.
If the arrangements and performances of A Picture of Me build upon Jones’ Mercury sides like “Tender Years”, “Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half as Bad as Loving You)” is based on spirited shuffles like “White Lightning” and “The Race Is On”. And much of Nothing Ever Hurt Me swerves between this brisk pace and jokey tone and gentler songs like “My Loving Wife” and “What My Woman Can’t Do”. But for all that it nominally sacrifices in intensity, this is still a heavy-duty record—and, played back-to-back, it’s fascinating to experience these two pieces as point and counterpoint stemming from a single stormy psyche. Still, if the records are evaluated separately, however, it’s hard to deny that Nothing Ever Hurt Me feels about half-a-step behind A Picture of Me
American Beat deserves credit for making these records available on CD, and reissue companies’ budgets are understandably stretched these days, but this particular package adds nothing to the original releases. The shrunken cover art dulls the impact of the original, full sized images and for background information, there is simply a reprint of the original—brief—liner notes. But if you’re a Jones fan who missed Koch’s twofer reissue in the late ‘90s, this is an essential purchase because few of these songs, with the exception of “A Picture of Me” and “Nothing Ever Hurt Me”, appear in the parade of anthologies assembled throughout the years. This release, then, stands as a perfect introduction to the Billy Sherrill-Epic years and a valuable chance to watch Jones pick up all the shine and trappings of his designation as the Rolls Royce of country singers.