By the late 1990s, country radio had decidedly cooled toward George Jones, just as it had done with most of his contemporaries. During that decade, Jones had made the transition from hit-maker to country music’s elder statesman. Although the radio hits had tapered off, he still managed to generate respectable sales, with two of his 90s discs earning gold certification. However, the sales weren’t considered good enough for him to keep his record deal, and in 1999 he parted ways with MCA Nashville after an eight-year stint with the label. It looked as though his major label career was over when he was suddenly given a reprieve — albeit a temporary one — when he was signed to the Nashville division of Asylum Records. The label assured him that he could have complete creative control and asked only that he record the album that he would have made twenty years earlier if he had been sober.
Jones teamed up with producer Keith Stegall, best known for his work with Alan Jackson, and his old pals Vince Gill and Patty Loveless who supplied harmony vocals to the project. The album that resulted was Cold Hard Truth, which was released in June 1999. It was hailed by the label as George’s return to hardcore country, which may have been overstating things a bit, since Jones had never abandoned his traditional sound. Still, the album was a change in direction in a sense, as its material was more substantive and serious, with none of the semi-novelty tunes or beat-driven “Young Country” style songs that had been characteristic of his work with MCA.
By this time, Jones had 158 charted singles — more than any other artist in any genre in history — under his belt. He kicked off the Asylum era of his career with “Choices”, a song about living with consequences of one’s actions which Billy Yates and Mike Curtis seem to have written with George in mind. In a just world, “Choices” would have returned George to the top of the charts, much as “Buy Me A Rose” would do for Kenny Rogers a few years later. Unfortunately that didn’t happen, but “Choices” did reach a respectable #30, higher than any of his MCA singles except for “High-Tech Redneck”. Interest in the song was undoubtedly fueled by the controversy that ensued when Jones refused to perform it on the CMA’s award show because that organization refused to allot him enough time to sing it in its entirety. However, the song holds its ground on its own merits, and is one of the finest performances of Jones’ career. One can imagine another singer tackling “Choices” but not with the credibility that Jones brings.
Jamie O’Hara’s “The Cold Hard Truth” was chosen as the follow-up single. It is another fine performance, somewhat similar in theme to “Choices”, but it is not quite as good a song. It stalled at #45. For the next single — his last on a major label — Jones released the more light-hearted and somewhat fluffy “Sinners & Saints”, written by Vip Vipperman, J.B. Rudd, and Darryl Worley. It peaked at #55.
Many artists have difficulty obtaining first-rate material once their hit-making days are over, but that definitely was not the case here. There are some true gems from some of Nashville’s finest songwriters among the album cuts, including “Day After Forever” from the pen of Max D. Barnes, “Ain’t Love A Lot Like That” written by Mark Collie and Dean Miller, “This Wanting You” by Bruce Burch, Bruce Bouton, and T. Graham Brown, and Emory Gordy Jr.’s and Jim Rushing’s haunting “When The Last Curtain Falls”.
The Asylum era appeared to be off to a strong start for the new millenium, but regrettably we will never know what direction they would have taken with subsequent projects. The label’s Nashville office was shut down in 2000 by its parent company Time Warner. George apparently turned down an offer to join the Warner Bros. Nashville roster, opting instead to become a partner with former Asylum president Evelyn Shriver in the newly formed Bandit Records, which has released all of his music from 2001 to the present day.
Cold Hard Truth is somewhat of a creative renaissance for Jones, more consistent in quality than any other album he’d released in the preceding decade. Although at age 68 his voice was beginning to show signs of wear and tear, he proved that he was still worthy of the title of country music’s greatest living singer. The album was meant to be a commercial comeback for George, and indeed it was a both a critical and commercial success, earning gold certification. However, it will be best remembered as the capstone to his major label career and it is hard to imagine how he could have ended his tenure with the majors on a higher note.
Cold Hard Truth is still readily available in both CD and digital form from sources such as Amazon and iTunes.