It's been a little more than a year since George Jones took his final curtain call on Earth, and now not one, but two tribute albums to one of the greatest country singers ever have surfaced.The efforts take notably disparate approaches, each illustrating the different tacks possible to paying homage to venerated musicians.
Sammy Kershaw's "Do You Know Me? A Tribute to George Jones" landed first, arriving July 22 and showcasing the Louisiana born singer best known for his 1993 No. 1 hit "She Don't Know She's Beautiful" emulating the signature Jones vocal style with an almost spooky similarity.
The other is "Don't Wait Up (for George)" from Shooter Jennings, the boundary-bending son of boundary-bending country outlaws Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter. Jennings' voice has never sounded remotely like Jones', so his five-song EP uses as a springboard his affection for Jones as a mentor and family friend.
Jones' spirit comes through in both collections -- which one will appeal more to Jones' fans depends on whether they're more interested in Kershaw's uncanny replication of his voice and musical arrangements or Jennings' reimagining of three Jones' hits as supplemented by two originals he wrote with the Possum in mind.
Kershaw, 56, started his career as something of a Jones clone, and consciously had to move away from mimicry to establish his own identity, which he did with a 15-year run of country hit singles from 1991-2006.
"I've been hooked on George since I was a kid, when I'd sit in the living room listening to an old record of his," Kershaw told The Times in 1993. "He could get at the sorrow that was way down deep inside. I wanted to be able to do something like that with a song. I can do it like that somewhat I guess -- but I'm nowhere near George."
He turns what was once a career liability into a heartfelt asset in the 14 songs on his tribute. They span such cornerstone hits as "The Grand Tour," "The Race Is On," "Why Baby Why" and, of course, "He Stopped Loving Her Today." There's also a duet with Georgette Jones -- the daughter from Jones' marriage to country queen Tammy Wynette -- on "Near You" and one original, the album's closer, Kershaw's "The Route That I Took."
You could argue that there's little need for carbon-copy versions of Jones' recordings as long as the originals are still available, but there's no denying the deep impact Jones' style had on Kershaw that prompted him to hew as close to the real deal as possible.
Jennings, on the other hand, understands there's no way to top Jones' idiosyncratic way about a song, so he doesn't try.
"When people ask me about who I remember hanging around as a kid, I always say that I remember Tony Joe White and George Jones being the most frequent and consistent around the house," Jennings, 35, said in a statement. "Very few people can look at a child and see the full grown human inside them and make them feel important. George was always this way with me, making me feel like he took me seriously, no matter what age I was."
So Jennings reinvents three No. 1 hits from different decades -- "She Thinks I Still Care" from 1962, "The Door" from 1974 and "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me" from 1981 -- and supplements them with two of his own songs: "Don't Wait Up (I'm Playin' Possum)," which he'd written with plans for Jones to record it, and "Living In a Minor Key."
"She Thinks I Still Care" - -the only song appearing on both tributes -- uses a throbbing pulse and eerie sustained electronic keyboard chords and weeping steel guitar in Jennings' version to amplify the haunted spirit of the lyric about a guy who can't get over an old flame. "If Drinking Don't Kill Me" has the most traditional country arrangement, a honky-tonk waltz featuring Jennings's suitably ragged voice. An eerie swirl of sounds precedes the hard rock guitar and drums that kick open "The Door," which Jennings takes down a back road of ominous Southern rock.
"Don't Wait Up (I'm Playin' Possum)" references the master's one-time reputation as "No Show Jones" in its big beat rock sound, and "Living in a Minor Key" is a country waltz with relatively simple guitar and bass accompaniment that celebrates Jones' ability to convey and transcend the pain that's an inevitable part of life.
Both collections serve up a healthy shot of Jones' spirit: Kershaw's straight up; Jennings' with a twist.