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ALONG CAME JONES

Like Hank Williams, the acknowledged king of country, George Jones tried to drink, carouse and good-time his way into an early grave. Unlike Williams, he didn't succeed. And now, with a still-vital Jones on the north side of sixty, the country-music establishment is trying to figure out how best to salute the man nicknamed Possum before his incredibly self-abusive life finally catches up to him. Predictably, the approach of choice involves repackaging, recycling and remaking past glories--a tack that gives listeners only fleeting indications of why Jones is the finest country singer still drawing breath.

Of course, getting to Jones's essence isn't easy. When he first emerged on the national scene during the mid-Fifties, he was a legitimate country talent whose singing and songwriting drew heavily from Williams; it was pure, naked and unadulterated, but not as distinctive as it would become. In fact, Jones came into his own only after mastering the ballad, a musical format that provided the room to take vocal chances. His eccentric sense of time, as well as a knack for unexpected improvisational swoops that had more in common with jazz singing than Jones likely knew, made compositions that might have turned into stereotypical soup in other hands shudder with power and emotion. Plenty of pretenders, including current C&W hunks such as Alan Jackson, have tried to imitate his tics--the way he fattens his tone in the middle of notes, for instance--but few of their efforts evoke one-tenth the angst of Jones at his best.

These Southern melodramas didn't always sell, however: Many of Jones's biggest hits--particularly 1959's "White Lightning" (written by J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson) and 1964's "The Race Is On"--were upbeat, entertaining jokefests that were far less memorable than his trademark heart-stompers. Nonetheless, their sales success led Jones to record plenty of musical goofs as well as material in other styles that hardly suited his gifts. He made a nice living following this path, but he also forced fans to sift through plenty of dross in order to find the over-the-top weepers he was born to make.

So, too, do the compilers of The Essential George Jones: The Spirit of Country, a two-CD Epic/Legacy boxed set that means to pull together all the disparate threads of Jones's career. The size of the package dooms it from the start: Clearly, two discs and 44 songs can only hint at the length and breadth of his massive catalogue. But more frustrating, the project focuses almost exclusively on hits rather than the songs that are most revealing of Jones's character. There are plenty of comparably disposable country smashes here--a case in point being "Her Name Is," an allegedly wacky 1976 track that pits Jones against the incessant boinging of an electric clavinet. But "The Battle," an epochal number from the same period that found Jones figuratively slugging it out with Tammy Wynette (his frequent singing partner, onetime wife and well-known musical foil), is nowhere to be found.

Which is not to say that there aren't great moments here. Producer Billy Sherrill, with whom Jones worked for most of the Seventies, may have drenched many of the singer's recordings in lachrymose string arrangements, but he also had a knack for exploiting in song "No Show" Jones's personal foibles--his proclivity for missing concerts, his alcoholic binges, his bad match with Tammy. "The Grand Tour," "The Door" and "Golden Ring," a story-song that chronicles the dissolution of a marriage in three minutes (it was recorded by Jones and Wynette after their split), are nothing less than fascinating--white-trash disasters as calculated to shock as any headline from the National Enquirer. If this collection featured more songs like these and fewer like the concluding "Ya Ba Da Ba Do (So Are You)" (a 1988 failure that emerges as embarrassing self-parody), it really would be essential. Instead, it's another hit-and-miss affair, albeit one whose hits pack one hell of a punch.

Cup of Loneliness: The Classic Mercury Years, a two-CD overview released by Mercury, is a much more honorable and effective compilation, simply because Jones's artistry is given more attention than sales successes. The set draws only from sessions conducted in the Fifties; in addition, the 51 songs assembled are placed in chronological order so that radio favorites like "Why Baby Why" and "Who Shot Sam" (among seven songs that appear on both Cup and Essential) can be heard in the context of other cuts from the period. While these recordings aren't as overwhelming as those that came later, they're hard country that deserves to be heard, presented in a manner that balances the demands of novices and completists.

By contrast, The Bradley Barn Sessions, the latest Jones album on MCA, probably won't fully satisfy either of these groups. It's another tribute disc of the sort with which Jones has participated over the years (e.g., My Very Special Guests, a 1978 platter that found Jones crooning with James Taylor and Elvis Costello). This time around, it's mainly current country royalty coming to call: Marty Stuart, Alan Jackson, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Travis Tritt, etc. But even though producer Brian Aherne gives these eleven remakes of Jones trademarks a fairly interesting new-traditionalist sound, none of the tunes come within spitting distance of the originals--and a few (like "White Lightning," with Mark Knopfler) are downright humiliating. Only "Say It's Not You," with Keith Richards--one of the few people whose life can compare with Jones's--has much to offer beyond novelty value.

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