Despite her lack of real commercial success, George Jones once called Merle Haggard’s ex-wife Leona Williams “the greatest female singer to have ever stepped up to a microphone” – a quotation she naturally likes to repeat. She was also one of his chosen duet partners in Ladies’ Choice, the duet album he did with assorted female singers in 1985. On her own New Patches album on Heart of Texas a few years back, Leona included a warmhearted tribute to Jones and his wife Nancy, and her latest venture is a full-scale tribute album to the man she, and I, would call the greatest country singer of all time.
She resurrects that original tribute song, ‘Ol’ George’ (which she also wrote), as the lead-in to a nice set of covers of some of Jones’s greatest hits, given traditional country arrangements.
Leona delivers an emotional version of the brooding ‘Window Up Above’ which is very good. Working equally well are her version of ‘A Picture Of Me (Without You)’ and (given a gender switch) ‘He Thinks I Still Care’. ‘You Comb His Hair’ is beautifully sung, and lyrically perhaps works a little better interpreted by a woman than the original. This is a highlight for me.
The romantic ‘I’ll Share My World With You’ and ‘Walk Through This World With Me’ are also very well done, and don’t prompt unfavorable comparisons at all.
Tribute versions often show just how good the subject of that tribute is, and this is no exception. ‘Color Of The Blues’ sounds pretty but lacks the hopeless intensity of heartbreak of the original. The same goes for ‘I’m Not Ready Yet’, ‘Things Have Gone To Pieces, and ‘When The Grass Grows Over Me’. They are quite effective on their own terms, but the originals are hard, if not impossible, to match. She makes a good stab at ‘He stopped Loving her Today’, with a low key approach which works quite well, but inevitably falls a little short of Jones.
A bouncy up-tempo hillbilly medley of ‘Race Is On’/’White Lightnin’’/’Why Baby Why’ is quite enjoyable, but my favorite track is an invested take on ‘Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?’, which is rather lovely.
I think in some ways any one of these covers would have been a delightful addition to a collection of otherwise new material, but brought together as a tribute, comparisons are unavoidable. The sympathetic production, helmed by Bruce Hoffman, who did the same job on last year’s super bluegrass Grass Roots, help to make this a thoroughly pleasant listening experience. On the whole, though, it is a nice but inessential tribute from a fine older singer still near the top of her game, but George Jones’s originals are insurmountable.