You can’t set a higher bar for excellence in Country singing than the one set by George Jones. No artist in this genre deserves more to be honored – yet because of his unique artistry, it seems inevitable that each attempt to remember him through song will fall short.

On Do You Know Me? – A Tribute to George Jones, released July 22 on Big Hit Records, Sammy Kershaw emerges as one of the very few exceptions to this rule. His approach to 13 Jones classics plus one newer tune evokes the style and sound of the late Possum but never lapses into mere imitation. That’s a tough line to straddle, but Kershaw’s balance is perfect.

In this first part of a exclusive, Kershaw shares his thoughts generally on tribute albums and specifically on why he accepted the challenge of replicating the songs and soul of George Jones.

On Do You Know Me?, you don’t copy George Jones. Your personality is in the music too. But so is his. How did you put those elements together?

Sammy-kershaw-at-cmaYou can’t copy George. I knew that from the jump. But you have to cut these songs the way George cut ’em. Well, my style is kind of like Jones’ style, so I don’t have a problem with that. But when somebody says, “You might change the songs up a little bit,” that’s where I stop and say, “Why? Once a hit, always a hit.” Think about it: I had a big hit record with “Third Rate Romance,” and I just copied what Russell (Smith) and the Amazing Rhythm Aces had done. I didn’t change anything. The only difference was that they had a little bit better groove than I did. But I had a big old hit! So why change it? If you’re going to do it, sing it the way the writer wrote it and the original singer sang it.

That’s how I do my show. Every night, we get onstage. The band does every song note-for-note, like the record. I try to sing note-for-note like the record, the day I recorded it. Some parts are high every now and then, but I still sing those damn notes every night.

You don’t lower the keys?

Don’t change the keys! To me, a song is like a car. A car looks great in one color. One color on that car looks better than any other color. That’s just like a song: One key for that song sounds better than any other key on the scale. Just change it and see if it don’t change the whole thing.

Is that one reason why you recruited the musicians who play on Do You Know Me? You wanted players who could replicate the sound of the original accompaniment on the Jones recordings?

That’s right. I brought in copies (recordings) of the songs. We played the songs. I said, “Boys, we don’t want to change this.” They wrote their charts, we walked in and (claps his hands), bam! In five or 10 minutes, it was time to move to the next one. We had some overdubs, of course, but we hit 14 of them. It was awesome.

Sammy Kershaw131 Moments By Moser

Photo by Bev Moser

So by staying as close as you can to the original feel of the Jones recordings, you’re helping to introduce his legacy to people who may not know who he was.

There are so many young singers today who have no idea who George Jones is, or Merle Haggard or Hank Williams or Lefty Frizzell. They have no clue. I hope that there’s a young singer coming up who loves my music. Maybe someday, when I’m gone, he’ll do a tribute album. I would want him to do it as close as he could do me. Don’t change it, man! That’s why people loved it, because of the way I sang it and the way the music was played. Do it just like that. Maybe a lot of people who never even heard of Sammy Kershaw would become fans of that guy. Then, all of a sudden, my music starts living on – just like Jones, man.

So I did this album for my friend. All I’m doing is putting Jones’ music out there, and maybe one of my young fans might hear one of my versions, listen to it and then find out it was a guy named George Jones that first had that record. Then they start doing a little bit of searching on their own and they find Jones’ old catalog. And now they’re opened up to George Jones. And he lives forever.

Next week on, Sammy Kershaw comments on how today’s Country singers and players can learn from studying George Jones.

Check out these highlights from Sammy Kershaw’s Do You Know Me?