june 2009

Re-Tracing Giant Steps, Revealed Anew

By Billy Altman

 George Jones A Picture Of Me Without YouA Picture Of Me (Without You)/Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half As Bad As Losing You)
George Jones
American Beat Records

One of the real joys of reissues is that fact that they can compel you to start re-thinking about music that you thought you already knew pretty well—only to find out that the prism of time may make you appreciate it in a new light. That's certainly the case with these two early '70s George Jones albums which, while repackaged together in a single CD sporting no frills (no bonus or unreleased tracks, and threadbare discographical data), nonetheless offers solid value in terms of both re-highlighting excellent original work and the underlying subtext of what went into them.

While history corrects posits George Jones as one of country music's greatest and most enduring figures, the George Jones who signed with Epic Records in 1971 was joining a label where his wife, Tammy Wynette, was at the time actually the bigger selling star. That was due in no small part to the work of producer Billy Sherrill, whose think-outside-the-fence approach to the sound of country music in the late 1960s had helped catapult Wynette to the top of the charts.

It is always significant to note that Sherrill, whose resume included early engineering work for Sun Records' legendary Sam Phillips as well as rock and gospel acts at the start of his producing career at Epic, was generally regarded as an outsider throughout his time as a Nashville hitmaker, and often looked down upon by the country music establishment for what was deemed too much of a lush, pop-leaning sound. (The joke, of course, is that Sherrill, like any good producer, guided the artists and material he was working with to maximum effect, as attested by his crossover pop successes with a diverse set of performers ranging from Wynette and Tanya Tucker to Charlie Rich and Johnny Paycheck.)

In any event, it is interesting to listen in 2009 to these albums—two of the first of the decade-plus relationship between singer Jones and producer Sherrill—and appreciate how truly conventional they are in terms of the bedrock spirit of country music coming through, in both the songs themselves and in Jones' ever-masterful singing. A Picture Of Me is almost exclusively ballads, and is highlighted by classic compositions like Norro Wilson's title track ("Imagine a world where no music was playing/Then think of a church with nobody praying"), Tom T. Hall's "Second Handed Flowers," and Ernest Tubb's "Tomorrow Never Comes." Meanwhile, Nothing Ever Hurt Me features numerous uptempo tunes like the novelty-styled title track ("My best friend set my barn on fire and burned my horses to death/I went out with a girl who told me, 'George you got bad breath'") and the "White Lightnin''"—like "You're Looking At A Happy Man," while also nodding towards tradition with a fine reading of Lefty Frizzell's "Mom And Dad Waltz."

What isn't as conventional, though, is Sherrill's production style, which often juxtaposes twangy guitar tones and bass lines borne in '50s rockabilly with the sweetening sounds of harmony-laden backing vocal ensembles. That combination of rough and smooth textures was key to the Sherrill sound, and for Jones, who turned 40 in 1971, it provided a landscape that allowed him to progressively dig deeper into his own daunting well of emotions, and in the process truly mature as a singer and interpreter. You can sense that process beginning to unfold on these two albums, and what a treat it is to go back and re-trace it after all this time.

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George Jones, "Walk Through This World With Me," classic Possum from The Porter Wagoner Show

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