When George Jones met Tammy Wynette, sparks flew. So, apparently, did dishes, utensils and glasses, when Jones interceded in an argument between the younger country starlet and her then-husband. It wasn’t long before Jones and Wynette were married, and dubbed “Mr. and Mrs. Country Music” by their adoring public. While maintaining separate recording careers, they also scored hits as a duo, joining the ranks of other famous country pairs – both married and platonic – like Porter and Dolly, Conway and Loretta, and Johnny and June. But George and Tammy’s union between 1969 and 1976 was even more combustible than Mr. and Mrs. Cash’s, with incidents involving drugs, alcohol, a stint in a padded cell, and per Wynette, guns and violence. Time healed all wounds; The Possum and his ex-wife reunited to tour and record albums in 1980 and 1995 before Wynette’s untimely passing in 1998. Despite the incendiary nature of their relationship – or maybe, because of! – Jones and Wynette left behind a joint legacy of beautiful music as sung by two of the most timeless and resonant voices in country and western. Twenty-six such selections grace Songs of Inspiration, a new collection from Real Gone Music (RGM-0319) drawn from one duets album, one Wynette solo album, and rare single sides from both artists.
At the heart of this release is the 1972 album We Love to Sing About Jesus, which found the couple affirming their commitment to faith during a tumultuous time. It was one of their seven collaborative albums, and perhaps due to its spiritual material, their lowest-charting on the U.S. Country chart. (It still notched a respectable No. 38 berth.) Neither Jones nor Wynette were strangers to gospel, and indeed, the mainly original songs provided by many of country’s top songwriters (including Dallas Frazier, Tom T. Hall and Earl Montgomery) fit them like a glove.
Producer and countrypolitan architect Billy Sherrill brought his slick style to the album’s sound, with both The Jordanaires and The Nashville Edition adding background vocals. But Jones and Wynette’s leads as well as traditional C&W instrumentation still root the album in the realm of honky-tonks, and it’s never as pop-oriented as what would later be described as contemporary Christian. The jaunty title track penned by Wynette and Montgomery sets the tone for a reverent yet largely upbeat set; its joyful style is echoed by tracks such as Tom T. Hall’s “Me and Jesus” (a Top 10 Country hit for its author) and Montgomery’s toe-tapping, twangy “Let’s All Go Down to the River” (to see “this man walking on the water”) with its barrelhouse piano. Jones retells the famous Bible story in “Noah and the Ark” and he and Wynette are invested in “Let’s All Sing Ourselves to Glory,” a rewrite of “This Train Is Bound for Glory.” Wynette and Montgomery’s ballad “Old Fashioned Singing” could have been a mantra for both artists, and it gave the album its only hit single.
We Love to Sing About Jesus didn’t break any new ground, but remains a bright, heartfelt and happily enjoyable record. It’s joined on Songs of Inspiration by Wynette’s 1969 solo entry in the genre, simply titled Inspiration. Wynette found her inspiration from various sources, and so this happily eclectic album (also produced by Billy Sherrill) features standards from Broadway and Hollywood songwriters as well as past pop hits and traditional hymns. The country queen is at her strongest proving the universality of Rodgers and Hammerstein via a stirring version of their Carousel showstopper “You’ll Never Walk Alone” which transcends genre. She tackles an even more grandiose anthem with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” but doesn’t cross the line into mawkishness, and is similarly touching on “How Great Thou Art,” Stuart Hine’s adaptation of an 1885 spiritual melody and the lightly loping, piano-driven “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”
Wynette offers comfort with a couple more songs from Broadway tunesmiths - Irving Berlin’s White Christmas tune “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” with weeping steel guitar and organ, and Meredith Willson’s “May the Good Lord Bless You and Keep You.” She also reclaims Frankie Laine’s big ballad “I Believe” (co-written, in part, by Ervin Drake of “It Was a Very Good Year” and What Makes Sammy Run fame) as her own. Equally at ease with ballads and uptempo tracks here, she’s fervent on the traditional “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” which is as bouncy as “It is No Secret (What God Can Do” is dramatic. Darrell Glenn’s 1953 hit “Crying in the Chapel” (best known in Elvis Presley’s recording), with Wynette in full-voiced mode, is musically a dead ringer for one of her three-hanky weepers.
Four singles round out this bounty of country gospel: Wynette’s 1970 “The Wonders You Perform” b/w “Gentle Shepherd” and her 1978 “I’d Like to See Jesus (On The Midnight Special),” plus Jones’ 1977 “It’s a 10-33 (Let’s Get Jesus on the Line).” The latter two tracks are particularly enjoyable as they reference then-topical themes: Wynette’s hoping to see Jesus on the Wolfman Jack-hosted music program The Midnight Special, and Jones’ seeking out Jesus on a CB radio!
John Alexander provides the informative liner notes for this reissue which has been remastered by Vic Anesini at Sony’s Battery Studios. Songs of Inspiration shows the gentler, more reverent side of the President and First Lady of country music and as such, is a welcome addition to any country shelf.