Those who’ve come to George Jones late in the game may not be aware of his long tradition of gospel recordings. They’ve certainly been eclipsed by his dissolute years, when Epic Records producer Billy Sherrill chronicled Jones’ booze and coke-fueled fall into an abyss. But gospel was part of Jones’ musical lexicon from the start. Amid his seminal honky-tonk recordings for Starday in the 1950s, sacred performances such as “Taggin’ Along” and “Please Take The Devil Out Of Me” had the raw, febrile intensity of tent revival music.
Jones has recorded gospel for every major label he’s been with since Mercury, nearly all of it collected on various albums typically ignored in the greater context of his work. And after his most recent relapse, his boozy near-fatal 1999 SUV crash, he declared himself eminently ready for another, more carefully planned journey into the sacred.
When I interviewed him in November 2001, this album was next on his list. At the time, he said, “I’m goin’ to try to get the Oak Ridge Boys to do four [songs] with me, and the Happy Goodman Family, I’m tryin’ to get them for about four. And the Statler Brothers. I’m gonna try to get both those groups to do four [each] with me. I want to make it a different type of album with different people.”
If The Gospel Collection didn’t quite snare everyone Jones wanted (and given their gospel roots, the Oaks and Statlers would have been worthy collaborators), it renewed his association with Sherrill, who emerged from retirement to produce this project. At Epic, the ex-R&B musician, despite a reputation for production excesses with other singers, consistently brought out the best in Jones by playing the raw torment in his voice against Phil Spectorish arrangements that would have overwhelmed a lesser singer.
Here, despite an occasional falter, Jones is as consistent vocally as he’s been for the past decade. Sherrill, for his part, eschews the mile-high orchestrations of Jones’ Epic years in flavor of a more austere yet no less elegant sound. Hearing him stroll sure-footedly through “Amazing Grace”, “Why Me, Lord”, “Lonesome Valley”, “I’ll Fly Away” and twenty other gospel standards is somehow reassuring. He’s particularly effective on “Family Bible”, the song Willie Nelson wrote and sold 40 years ago.
Recitations on records are largely passé nowadays, in part because they often evoke snickers when mishandled (which they often are). Jones, on the other hand, has done them on record for decades. When, on “Peace In The Valley”, he somberly intones, “Well, that old lion is gonna lay down by that little lamb,” it adds an air of authority to an already powerful performance.
As for the cameos by Patti Page, gospel stalwart Vestal Goodman, and his touring show mates Barry Smith and Sheri Copeland, none detract from any of the performances. They undoubtedly enhanced George’s pleasure in making the record, but except for the raw, ferocious contribution from Goodman, don’t really add much.
The Gospel Collection may not break any new ground or offer any surprises. But at this point in George Jones’ career, when he stands as the Gray Eminence of both of a time sadly passing and an undying timelessness, that’s really not the point.