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Knockout Possum

Listening to George Jones sing “Funny How Time Slips Away,” the opening track on his latest disc, Hits I Missed?.?.?.?and One I Didn’t (Gramminated for a Nommy!), is like inhaling a draught of some mystical narcotic vapor. The performance possesses such grace, and delivers a dreamy, transportive effect so lulling, that when he reaches the vengeful jackpot conclusion (“In time you’re gonna pay”), the shimmering mood instantly dissipates with the realization that, even after all these years and with a wholly familiar song, the damn Possum has yet again set you up for a vicious emotional KO. It’s what Jones has always been about.

As his nickname implies, Jones is a master of the airtight fake-out, whether turning his audience inside-out or, after years of trumpeting his sobriety, turning up in that notorious 1999 SUV wreck, still mustering the bloodied wherewithal to stash his jug of vodka under the front seat. The public Jones always comes off as restless, inarticulate and ill at ease — yet, inevitably, the mush-mouthed hillbilly shitck evaporates onstage. Almost schizophrenic in its scope, as if some weird hex takes over, Jones’ at-the-microphone metamorphosis into unrivaled balladeer is an alteration as extreme as the manicured agony of his most famous songs. And when it’s over, Jones is gone, out the stage door before the applause subsides.

The king of classic country vocalists has always been an enigmatic figure; born September 12, 1931, in a remote East Texas hellhole called the Big Thicket, he suffered Depression-era misery and an abusive father who’d come home drunk, yank Jones from bed and beat the bejeezus out of him if he didn’t sing. By 10, he was a street singer in Beaumont. And in 1954, he began recording for redneck impresario Pappy Dailey’s indie Saturday Records. Jones’ hard-traveled chronology not only paralleled country music’s modern evolution but accelerated that growth with unprecedented contributions — whether 1965’s “The Race Is On,” 1974’s “The Grand Tour” or 1999’s magnificent “Choices” — that very few colleagues even attempted to match. Despite that, over the course of more than 100 albums, he’s padded each with some appalling songs, and Hits I Missed is loosely framed as a collection of material he was initially presented with but rejected. Jones has always been a relatively uncompromising musician, one whose routine lapses in judgment (who can forget bombs like “Yabba Dabba Doo [the King Is Gone and So Are You]” or “Beer Run”?) have created enthusiastic misfires so epic that they rate as vintage Possumana. Here, with Jones clearly left by Bandit Records to his own designs, choice of material is of critical interest, and the set affords greater insight than the innumerable Nashville factory albums he’s churned out. While the voice itself — country music’s single finest instrument — no longer traces quite the same sharp angles so important to Jones’ phrasing, it remains as communicative and unpredictable as ever; it’s assumed a floating, smoky, almost spectral quality that allows him to layer interpretive nuance with a gentle touch as effective as his prime-time acrobatics.

Jones, in the industry context, does not suffer fools gladly, and with Alan Jackson’s “Here in the Real World” and Randy Travis’ “On the Other Hand,” he significantly acknowledges the neotrad stars, but the two stops only serve to highlight the sterility of contemporary Nashville. By comparison, Jones really comes through on the venerable hits “Pass Me By” and “Skip a Rope” (with its raw, curdled-kiddie lyric “Daddy hates Mommy, Mommy hates Dad”). His torture-and-salvation duet with Dolly Parton on Hank Williams Jr.’s “Blues Man,” his shame and anguish on the Bobby Bare breakout “Detroit City” and the bruised wonder of “Today I Started Loving You Again” all gleam with the power of Jones’ own soul-deep sublimation as a country artist, an involvement so closely held and consuming that it’s probably the only thing keeping him alive.

Country music became Jones’ natural element, an ethereal yet sustaining connection that enabled him to record, at the lowest point of life — coked up, drunk and tipping the scales at 100 pounds — what became the all-time No. 1–programmed and –played country song, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which, not coincidentally, is the “one I didn’t” alluded to in the album title. His remake of the 1980 career-reviving dirge is anything but redundant: It is a stunning example of his own intensification, full of open space and dark color, reaching into the shadows for the ultimate release.