Ladies’ Choice/My Very Special Guests
Morello Records/Cherry Red
Country Legend George Jones was a masterful vocalist and performer, both solo and in collaboration. The recent twofer of 1984 album Ladies’ Choice and 1979 album My Very Special Guests offer up two distinctive albums that find him collaborating with numerous vocalists, and is in part one of Jones’ career highlights–albeit in a rather unflattering, often puzzling way.
His 1979 album My Very Special Guests was an innovative experiment. For this collection, Jones was paired with both his contemporaries from the country world and young, up-and-coming pop and rock musicians, who would either write exclusive songs for him, or would offer to duet on their own compositions. It was a great idea, to be sure. But Jones was at the lowest point in his life, a pathetic alcoholic pill-popper who didn’t really seem to care about his career, and didn’t seem to have much living left. Producer Billy Sherrill—who proposed the concept—must have had the patience of Job, as Jones in the studio was uncooperative, argumentative, disinterested in performing, and the great idea he had seemed unlikely to happen. (If you want a picture of Jones during the making of this record, we highly recommend Jack Isenhour’s wonderful book He Stopped Loving Her Today, which highlights just how “fun” Jones was in the recording studio,.)
The resulting album is a mixed affair. His duet with Willie Nelson, “I Gotta Get Drunk,” pretty much sums up Jones’ life at the time. That it feels flat and patched together, with Jones barely singing—and an awkward instrumental passage where Jones should be singing—belies Jones’ lack of interest in the project. It’s too bad, too; instead of getting a potentially compelling collaboration, his “duet” of James Taylor’s “Bartender’s Blues” merely seems like Taylor filling in harmonies on Jones’ recording from the year before, which, interestingly, had been a hit. When it works—such as on Elvis Costello’s “Stranger In The House” and Emmylou Harris’ “Here We Are”—the results are fantastic. (The less said about his version of “Proud Mary” with Johnny Paycheck, the better!)
Jones would later admit he had zero recollection of even recording and releasing the record, rightly considering it the product of a man at the bottom of the gutter. It certainly isn’t a great album.And yet, as an album, it has a loyal following, with fans accepting the record in spite of its imperfections and blemishes. Even more surprisingly, My Very Special Guests would set the template for duet albums of the future: blending well-known contemporaries of the singer, alongside a clutch of younger, up-and-coming artists. Jones, however, would start to clean up his act, and his follow-up album, 1980s I Am What I Am, would provide Jones with his most famous song and revive his sagging career.
With new interest in his music and his career, Jones would return to the duet album concept in 1984 with Ladies’ Choice, a record that found him duetting with mostly up-and-coming female country singers. Unlike My Very Special Guests, Jones was cooperative, and the results sound much better this time around. Unfortunately, for Ladies’ Choice, the album is drenched in the anodyne, almost antiseptic production style of mid-80s country pop. The material isn’t all that great, either; “Size Seven Round (Made Of Gold),” his duet with Lacy J. Dalton, is a painfully obvious rewrite of his classic duet “Golden Ring,” while his duet with Loretta Lynn, “We Sure Make Good Love,” feels like a lost opportunity, opting for a quasi Jimmy Buffett melody and lyrics that are pure corn. But his second duet with Emmylou Harris, “All Fall Down,” is a satisfying affair, and a highlight of a rather unforgettable record.
And once again, in the midst of this mediocrity, an exception arises. The first song on the album, “She’s My Rock,” isn’t a duet, and when released as a single, it would become his last major hit, and the highest career peak in the last years of his carer. (In a clever bit of in-jokery, the next song on the album is “Hallelujah, I Love You So,” sung with Brenda Lee, who previously held the most successful recording of “She’s My Rock.”)
Being a fan of George Jones was never an easy proposition, and one had to put up with a lot as they waited between hit singles. These two records highlight how difficult that could be, and yet even in their imperfections, both offer Jones in his prime, doing what he did best: making music.