So it begins, the veritable deluge of posthumous releases that was sure to follow in the wake of the death of George Jones. The only shocking thing about Amazing Grace is its modesty — a mere 12 tracks, 11 of which were culled from 2003’s The Gospel Collection, it clocks in at approximately 40 minutes. I suspected the first posthumous release would be something more monumental — career-spanning box, multi-disc collection of alternate takes, something like that. And make no mistake, such releases are sure to come in droves, as will more tactical compilations like the one in question.
In some ways, though, it’s entirely fitting that this is the first officially sanctioned release of Jones’s music since his death in April. Gospel was always near and dear to Jones’ heart, and throughout his career he contributed passionate, masterful (and oft-overlooked) renderings of the genre’s classics. On this record, his takes on the title track, “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be”, and “Peace in the Valley” are as powerful a testament to the man’s technique as just about anything he committed to tape in the last 20 years of his life. Furthermore, his performances of the well-worn gospel standards that make up Amazing Grace seem all the more profound in light of his passing. Granted, one might argue that this is a sort of cheap conceptual coup, but the effect remains haunting, beautiful, and sometimes revelatory.
Still, fitting as this collection is in some respects and strong as it is in many, it nonetheless falls well short of the definitive. Jones was a great many things, believer included, but above all else his recorded output speaks to the joys and travails of the sinner. Songs about drinking, drugging, cheating and violence abound in his canon. Even the heart songs for which Jones was most famous are grounded in sin — indeed, the sense of soul-deep suffering Jones could impart to a song could be borne only of first-hand experience with sin. As such, this album’s reliance on songs of redemption can’t possibly do full justice to the scope of Jones’ artistry. No, what this album lacks are songs of judgement, wherein the perpetual sinner comes to grips with the eternal consequences of his earthly trespasses.
There is one such track on Amazing Grace, and it’s a doozy — “Great Judgement Morning” (sic). Exercising brilliant restraint in his parts, Jones becomes truly emotive only during the refrain, and the effect is devastating:
And, oh, what a weeping and wailing,
As the lost were told of their fate;
They cried for the rocks and the mountains.
They prayed, but their prayer was too late.
Not a comforting sentiment — a terrifying one, in fact, particularly if you’re a believer. And Jones wasn’t just a sinner, even though he was most famous as one. He was a believer, too. It’s only because Jones was both a sinner and a believer that he could tackle material with such nuance and render it so complex and rewarding. This collection gives short shrift to that ability, which I’d argue is the crucial element of Jones’ artistry.