George Jones is one of a handful of contenders for the title Greatest Living Country Singer. Born in 1931 and raised in dirt-poor conditions in East Texas, he began his singing career imitating his idol, Hank Williams. He quickly found his own remarkable voice, and after hitting it big with "Why, Baby, Why" in 1955, he went on to produce some of the most enduring music to come out of Nashville -- songs like "Color of the Blues," "The Window Up Above" and "She Thinks I Still Care." His 1969 marriage to Tammy Wynette was fodder for the tabloids -- they were known as "Mr. and Mrs. Country Music" -- and Jones fell into a well-chronicled spiral of drug and alcohol abuse that nearly killed him. Shortly after Jones recorded "These Days (I Barely Get By)" (1975), Wynette walked out the door, and they soon divorced. When he published his autobiography, "I Live to Tell It All," in 1996, he promised his self-destructive ways were way behind him.
Then, last March, Jones lost control of his Lexus and plowed into a bridge near his home outside Nashville, Tenn. He suffered a collapsed lung, a ruptured liver and internal bleeding. Miraculously, he survived. Jones later admitted he had been drinking -- an empty bottle of vodka was found under the front seat -- and he vowed one more time to kick the habit. "I came very close to death," he said, "and I know the Lord works in mysterious ways and he spared me. I can only believe that he still has work for me to do here."
Turns out that Jones had just about finished recording "Cold Hard Truth," his first album for Asylum Records. And it's a gem, the best record he's made since "The Bradley Barn Sessions" (1994). Before the accident, Jones had planned to go back to the studio to re-record some of the vocals on "Cold Hard Truth." It's hard to imagine how they could have been improved upon, for Jones' amazing vocal prowess is in top form. Even after 67 years of hard living, he can still outperform just about anybody in a cowboy hat. His voice -- with its astonishing melisma and Sinatra-esque phrasing -- is a gift from the heavens, an instrument of perfection in a world of pain and sorrow.
For "Cold Hard Truth," producer Keith Stegall enlisted some of Nashville's finest --including guitarist Brent Mason, fiddler Stuart Duncan and pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins -- to back up the master, and they do so in a spare, classic manner that never gets too slick.
When Jones left MCA Records last year, he accused the label of failing to market him properly. "They just wouldn't spend the money," he said at the time. Maybe so, but the fact is, his last two albums for the label, "I Lived to Tell It All" and "It Don't Get Any Better Than This," both suffered from weak material. On "Cold Hard Truth," however, the songs are all standouts, and most of them are dark ballads about lost love and regretful decisions, subjects that Jones obviously knows a thing or two about.
"Choices," which begins the album, wasn't written by Jones, but it sounds like the story of his wild, woolly life: "I've had choices since the day that I was born/There were voices that told me right from wrong/If I had listened, I know I wouldn't be here today/Living and dying with the choices I've made." In the title song, which borrows its melody from Jones' 1980 hit "He Stopped Loving Her Today," the singer confronts his accusing conscience and discovers the "Cold Hard Truth" about his pitiful, self-deceptive existence. "Nobody's perfect," Jones answers in "Sinners & Saints," "we're just flesh and blood, one foot on the high road and one in the mud." "Cold Hard Truth" isn't George Jones' swan song. But if it had been, the Possum would have left this sad old world on a high note.