("Exploring the Classics" (ETC) is an ongoing series in which I highlight and discuss an album from country music's past that is of particular noteworthiness due to general acclaim, influence, historical import, commercial success, or some combination thereof. While in many instances I'll be revisiting albums with which I've long been familiar, in others I'll be experiencing these works for the first time. What albums count as "noteworthy" is obviously highly subjective and determined at my discretion, but I'm not too strict about it. I do, however, feel that these are the works that tell the story of country music and all of its many roots and branches.)
While George Jones was an outstanding vocalist and responsible for many of the most iconic songs in the country music canon, the truth is, unlike some contemporaries such as Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, he rarely excelled at making great albums. He was extremely prolific, typically releasing two or three albums a year at the demand of his labels, and this frequently resulted in the need to record songs that were less than great. He's pretty much the quintessential example of a "singles artist" whose genius is most apparent on compilations. However, he occasionally did hit upon a great batch of songs, and 1974's The Grand Tour, released at the height of George's fame when he was married to Tammy Wynette and charting in the top 10 with regularity, is easily one of the best albums he ever made.
Fans have been debating what country music is and what it should sound like probably for as long as the concept of "country music" has existed. Between the Nashville Sound and Chet Atkins, the outlaw backlash, the Urban Cowboy fad, the neotraditional movement, the Garth/Shania boom years, "Murder on Music Row", the rise of alt-country and Americana, Taylor Swift winning Entertainer of the Year, "old farts and jackasses", the emergence of bro-country, the out-of-nowhere success of Chris Stapleton and all the other notable events and eras, I'm sure you've heard all the arguments and back-and-forths by now. At this point, rehashing this whole debate is not beating a dead horse, it's exhuming the body and lighting it on fire. But if you'll indulge me, I'd like to give my thoughts on this subject.
I guess the question we have to ask ourselves is, "What exactly is country music?" The biggest issue surrounding this whole debate is that there's no official, objective criteria that determines what is or isn't country. It's not like a deity has descended from the heavens to inscribe the one true definition of country music onto a stone tablet, nor have scientists discovered a new theorem that can be used to irrefutably prove whether a piece of music is or isn't country. Webster and Wikipedia are vague, and talk more about country music's influences and places of origin than what it actually sounds like. Ultimately, it seems people's conceptions of country music vary depending on when they were born, what music they've been exposed to, and what they like.
Editor's Note: I originally intended to review another album for my debut at Country Music Minds. However, for obvious reasons, I decided to it was only fitting to review a Merle Haggard album instead. Thanks again to Louis for inviting me to contribute.
In 1982, George Jones and Merle Haggard collaborated on the duet album A Taste of Yesterday’s Wine. While perhaps not among the very best entries of either artist's discography, it was a fine album that contained several strong tracks, chief among them being their classic cover of Willie Nelson’s “Yesterday’s Wine". Unfortunately, we had to wait nearly a quarter of a century for a follow-up.