In his celebrated 1994 essay on George Jones
, Nick Tosches just can't shake the feeling that the Possum is, in truth, dumber than a possum, that, apart from his voice, he is just a "cipher" living in "cracker-land," a "non-entity" possessing "but the barest traces of sentience." Of course, Tosches would likely find Michelangelo a dull interview; at least he recognizes Jones as the greatest living country singer. What critics like Tosches misunderstand is that no personality, no intellect, no charisma -- no matter how extraordinary -- could ever measure up to the desolation, the penitence, the boundless love expressed by that voice.But Jones is not the vacant "inert mind" Tosches paints: In the early part of his career, Jones wrote such exquisite ballads as "Just One More," "Don't Stop the Music" and "The Window Up Above," and even when he wasn't penning lyrics, he often contributed to or devised melodies, without which songs like "I Just Don't Give a Damn," "A Goodbye Joke" and "She Should Belong to Me" would not be masterpieces. Next to his greatest recordings -- you know them: "Walk Through This World With Me," "A Good Year for the Roses" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today" -- even the work of giants such as Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell sounds like no more than great country music. "The Grand Tour," on the other hand, sounds like the score to the beginning and the end of the world.
The life of George Jones has never been a blank slate, and he has periodically succumbed to the inner terrors only he knows. His cocaine and booze binges have destroyed his marriages and once reduced him to a skeletal 100 pounds. Like Lefty and Hank, he did his best to cut life short. Two years ago, however, at the age of 68, Jones made not only one of the best country albums of the year but a record that genuinely stands with the finest of his career. Cold Hard Truth included the song of the year, "Choices," an emotional anagnorisis sung with the honest, fearful grandeur that is the signature of his soul. "No-Show Jones," fans and critics once called him. But few artists have ever shown or given us more.