Recording of September 1999: Cold Hard Truth

GEORGE JONES: Cold Hard Truth
Asylum 62368-2 (CD). 1999. Keith Stegall, prod.; John Kelton, eng.; Mark Nevers, Brady Barnett, Steven Crowder, John Stolpe, asst. engs. AAD? TT: 34:16
Performance ****?
Sonics ****?

Bogey's career ended with The Harder They Fall. Marilyn Monroe's final film was The Misfits. Marlene Dietrich finished with Just a Gigolo. An artist's final work often has a way of cutting to the heart of his or her talent.

Cold Hard Truth—something George Jones avoided during much of his tumultuous life of drinking, drugging, and making classic records—was almost the singer's epitaph. The disc was completed just days before his near-fatal auto accident in Tennessee; the urge to discern a deeper meaning, a coming-to-terms in every line, is call that's almost too easy to make.

Still, compared to Jones' work for MCA/Nashville over the past decade, Cold Hard Truth does dig deeper, both in terms of pointed, self-referential lyrics and stunning vocal performances. According to the liner notes by Asylum Records president Evelyn Shriver, Jones was given carte blanche to do "the record he would have done 20 years ago if he had been sober." The result: Excepting greatest-hits discs and compilations like Cup of Loneliness: The Mercury Years (PolyGram 522 279-2), Cold Hard Truth is Jones' best record since 1980's I Am What I Am (Columbia CK 36586).

Although Jones and producer Keith Stegall have assembled a class group of songs by an all-star list of songwriters, Jones has in many ways been making the same album ever since he cut his first single for Pappy Daily and Starday Records back in 1954: a couple of upbeat, boot-scuffing dance numbers, an ill-chosen novelty tune or two, and then the knockout blow of a handful of elegantly rendered ballads.

Cold Hard Truth is no exception. It gets off to a portentous start with its first single, the gorgeously paced, fiddle-led "Choices." Here Jones fesses up to his sins (a characteristic ploy), ticking off specifics and repeating the chorus kicker, "Living and dying with the choices I've made," a line made that much more poignant given his subsequent brush with the grim reaper.

As the disc that he would have made 20 years ago had he been able, this collection of tunes, not surprisingly, echoes many of the highlights from Jones' 40 years in music. The title track, for example, has more than a few moments—particularly in the way the verses unfold—that recall his biggest hit, "He Stopped Loving Her Today."

Jones revisits his honky-tonk roots with the upbeat "Saints and Sinners" and the delightful Mark Collie/Dean Miller romp of "Ain't Love a Lot Like That," which, while still a novelty song—he's got a weakness for 'em—is on a par with "White Lightning" and some of the other, better silly songs he's turned into hits.

The ballad "Our Bed of Roses" returns to a flower that Jones has often sung about, most affectingly in his mid-'70s hit "A Good Year for the Roses." Best of all, though, is another ballad, Max D. Barnes' "Day After Forever." In it, Jones plows his most fertile I'm-out-the-door-(and-damned-sad-about-it) ground he's made a career of.

Through it all, of course, is Jones' voice—arguably the most distinctive male instrument in the history of the music, and the male equal of Patsy Cline's. Although huskier than when he was young, it still has astounding punch and nuance. In "Real Deal," Jones takes his still considerable upper range for a smooth, unbroken ride, and near the end throws in one of his trademark real low-spoken asides, à la the title line in "White Lightning."

While Truth features the usual A-list slate of CMA "Instrumentalist of the Year" nominees—guitarist Brent Mason, pianist Hargus M. "Pig" Robbins, fiddler Stuart Duncan, pedal-steel player Paul Franklin—they actually manage to emote more than usual (which isn't saying much), and often find a higher gear during solos and ensemble parts.

When Stereophile editor John Atkinson and I sat down to review the candidates for September's "Recording of the Month," his comment on this disc was that it was "the essence of country music." I agree. From the very first track, it's clear that Stegall was determined to keep that essence intact, both in terms of not candy-coating the overall production—the Achilles' heel of many past Jones albums—and in keeping the singer's spot-on, emotionally engaged vocals front and center. In other words, Stegall had the sense not to shave off the sessions' rough edges and turn this record into yet another overmanicured Nashville studio creation. Sonically, this disc is an example of how far Nashville has come as a recording center—it's alive and warm, with excellent depth of imaging.

The one-two shock of this album's release and the artist's near-fatal accident have snapped into sharp focus the question Jones once asked, very memorably, in song—"Who's gonna fill their shoes?" Despite his past decade of less than stellar albums, this one tells you that, when it comes to George Jones, the cold hard truth is: No one.—Robert Baird