1983 saw a new label for Vern, Compleat, and a real comeback. This was his first album for the label, and was produced by Blake Mevis. The production shows some signs of its era with liberal but not overwhelming use of string sections and sometimes slightly dated sounding arrangements of the backing vocals, clearly patterned after Janie Fricke’s contribution to earlier Gosdin records, but it allows that voice to shine.
The classic title track is a stunning song, with a beautifully understated vocal which is, like many of Vern’s recording, a masterclass in singing country music. Bitter but weary of fighting it, Vern addresses a wife he knows is planning on cheating on him:
There’s a closet full of dresses that I bought you
And here’s the keys to the new car in the drive
And before you leave our room
Put on your best perfume
If you’re gonna do me wrong, do it right
Oh, the next time the phone rings
I won’t answer
I don’t wanna be the fool I was tonight
I don’t wanna know the truth
I don’t wanna see the proof
If you’re gonna do me wrong
Do it right
The pain is palpable. It was Vern’s biggest hit to date, and quite an achievement for an independent label, albeit one distributed and promoted by the major Mercury, and although a peak of #5 was still four spots lower than it deserved. It might have been known as one of George Jones’s classic hits, as Vern and co-writer Max D Barnes had pitched it to the Possum, but he had unaccountably failed to record it. That seems like a real missed opportunity, which Jones acknowledged when he finally got around to covering it on his 2005 set Hits I Missed – but then we would never had heard Vern Gosdin’s own superb version.
Matching its predecessor’s performance, second single ‘Way Down Deep’ picked up both tempo and mood with a positive love song Vern wrote with Max D Barnes and the latter’s son Max T Barnes. It’s very good with a happy feel as it celebrates falling in love, but lacks the emotional intensity which makes Vern’s best work his heartbreak ballads, and is one of my less favourite tracks here.
The wistful ‘I Wonder Where We’d Be Tonight’ was the third top 10 from the album, making it his most consistent and successful release to date. Vern ponders regretfully what might have been if he hadn’t broken up with an ex he still loves, delivering another perfectly executed vocal on an excellent song.
The record is packed full of now-classic recordings. ‘Tennessee Courage’, which Vern wrote with his brother Rex (who died in 1983 aged just 45 after recording backing vocals for this album) is beautiful but sad, portraying a man taking refuge from his loneliness in a bottle of whiskey:
Now my good friend Jack Daniels stands tall on the shelf
And he’ll go to war with my troubles
And he’ll never desert an old friend when I’m hurt
And needin’ some Tennessee courage
Straight 90 proof can alter the truth
Put hair on your chest in a hurry
I know I’ll survive
Raise hell for a while
With the help of some Tennessee courage
The song was later covered by Keith Whitley in his posthumously released I Wonder Do You Think Of Me, the latter’s alcohol-induced death giving an added poignancy to the choice. Vern also repeated his exquisite AMI top 10 hit ‘Today My World Slipped Away’, a song always worth hearing again. The lesser known ‘I’ll Try’ is almost as good, Vern offering a warm and supportive helping hand to someone in pain:
I’ll try to help you understand what love is all about
And why the things you want so bad
You seem to do without
And if your heart should start to cry
As you watch dreams inside you die
And you need someone to tell you why
‘Favorite Fool Of All’ has a devoted Vern all too aware he is fooling himself that his faithless lover will not break his heart like those of all her past conquests.
If the sad songs are the best, there is also some happy material worth hearing. ‘I Couldn’t Love You More’ is a touching love song with a pretty tune, and ‘My Heart Is In Good Hands’ is also nice. While there really isn’t a bad track, the closest we get to filler is with ‘I Feel Love Closin’ In’, a pleasant enough chugging ballad about falling in love, and even this is tenderly sung making it sound good.
This outstanding album was released on CD in 2001 on Vern’s own VGM label and this version is still fairly easy to find. One of the greatest singers country music has ever seen, and high quality material, make this a must-have.