This is an artistic predicament that could literally leave a singer breathless. Just ask George Jones, the man widely regarded as country music's greatest singer. Seventy years of hard living down the line -- including eleven days spent in a coma with ventilator tubes crammed down his throat after a 1998 car wreck -- Jones is now facing a cold, hard truth: His once protean voice will never regain its former grandeur. The Rock, Jones' first recordings since the accident and the weakest batch of songs he's cut in almost a decade, only underscores this painful reality.
Still, the album captures a fascinating moment: Jones' attempted transition from a singer who could do whatever he wished to one who must sometimes gasp for breath between lines. Jones' new voice is thinner, reedier, pitched higher than before, and it's mostly incapable of his trademark burping bass runs and pinball melismas, though he comes close on "Beer Run," a tongue-twisting duet (B-double E-double are you in!) with Garth Brooks. Instead, Jones is now more likely to hold a note delicately rather than curlicue it into a half-dozen syllables. This is a smart choice, given what he has to work with, and the payoff comes when Jones is finally matched with some decent songs. (It's easy to see why her love died/ She was planning her nights by the TV Guide, goes one memorable couplet.) Indeed, on a version of Billy Joe Shaver's "Tramp on Your Street," it's Jones' complete lack of vocal ease that renders the line His body was worn, but his spirit was free so achingly poignant.
Mountain music patriarch Ralph Stanley turns 75 in February, and he's facing vocal challenges of his own. Where Jones has a practically new voice to contend with, Stanley must learn to manipulate a weaker version of his old one. His formerly gale-force tenor has been tamed, but it's still strong enough to knock your hat off, especially when there are enough pauses between phrases for Stanley to get a running start.
On Clinch Mountain Sweethearts, Stanley teams up with sixteen female country singers. A few are dealing with altered voices themselves (sometimes for the better -- Maria Muldaur and Joan Baez have never sounded so soulful), while others are in their vocal prime (including Gillian Welch, Pam Tillis, Sara Evans and Lucinda Williams). Stanley shines regardless of the partner. His haunting tenor might be raspy with years, but it's also more textured. And when, on two numbers, he raises his voice in pleading harmony with Iris DeMent's bittersweet twang, it reminds the listener that distinctive singers such as Stanley possess a numinous tone that even time can have trouble dimming.