He has been called everything from "Possum" and "No-Show" to country's greatest singer. Now George Jones can add "label partner" to the list. The enduring performer is a partner with former Asylum Rec

He has been called everything from "Possum" and "No-Show" to country's greatest singer. Now George Jones can add "label partner" to the list. The enduring performer is a partner with former Asylum Records head Evelyn Shriver in Bandit Records, which will release Jones' new album, "The Rock: Stone Cold Country 2001," Sept. 25, through a partnership with RCA Label Group (RLG) and its imprint BNA Records.

As he has with the much-publicized ups and downs of his storied career, Jones takes this new chapter of his colorful history in stride. "We've got a little invested together with RCA and BNA. We need them for the distribution and all the hard stuff," Jones says. "I don't think about it too much. I guess if I get a check, I'll think about it some."

Frustrated with the major-label system after a 1990s stint at MCA Nashville, Jones considered putting his recording days behind him. He turns 70 Sept. 12 and, given the hard living of his notorious past, that he is still performing and making new records might seem incredulous to some, including Jones himself.

"I never paid much attention to thinking I'd still be performing [at this age], and I had no idea I'd still be recording. I probably wouldn't be if it weren't for Evelyn," he says. "When I left MCA, I figured I'd work a few dates here and there and be semi-retired. Then Evelyn came along and wanted me to do this album with Asylum ["Cold Hard Truth" in 1999, featuring the Grammy-winning single "Choices"], and I got back in the business."

The success of "Cold Hard Truth," which has sold 492,000 units, according to SoundScan, was largely the result of giving Jones the attention he deserves, Shriver says. "George has over 200 albums, and [in the past] you could go into a record store and see plenty of George Jones product, but nothing to highlight the new record. You have to buy positioning and retail displays. You are limited as a veteran as to radio airplay, but George's fan base has not eroded. Our job was to make sure everyone knew there was a new record out."

Shriver, who was Jones' longtime publicist before heading Asylum, doesn't think "Cold Hard Truth" reached its full potential. "The truth of the matter is we started getting shut down at Asylum at the end of '99, so there was no real effort on the album after George won the Grammy," she says. "We felt like we left at least 300,000-400,000 [units] on the table."

When Asylum left the Warner Bros. fold, it let Jones out of his deal, clearing the way for him to go with Shriver, who formed Bandit with former Asylum A&R chief Susan Nadler and partnered with RLG. "George is a partner, and with all the records he's sold over the years for various labels, he should have ownership," Shriver says. "Of course, that's a double-edged sword, because that means really participating."

Produced primarily by Emory Gordy Jr., with four cuts produced by Keith Stegall, "The Rock" is a solid collection of lively uptempos and the kind of sturdy, heartfelt ballads that have long been Jones' stock in trade. Among the highlights is "Tramp on Your Street," a Billy Joe Shaver ballad about Hank Williams that fits Jones -- whose admiration for Williams is well-documented -- like a glove.

"I can relate to that song, almost as if it was written for me," he says. "I did walk a long way to many of his shows when he came to town. I saw him perform in Beaumont, Texas, when I was about 16 or 17, and he had so many encores you couldn't count them."

Another powerful cut on the new record is "I Am," a gut-wrenching ballad addressing human frailties that, again, seems tailor-made for Jones. He says ballads remain his favorite type of song to record. "Some of my favorite ballads aren't big hits. I fall for melodies, too. That's one of my faults when choosing songs."

"Half Over You" features the soaring heights, vocal swoops, resonant lower register, and inimitable tone that has placed Jones in such high esteem among peers and fans alike. The debut single, "The Man He Was," showcases' Jones' ongoing vocal dexterity and one-of-a-kind phrasing.

Jones says his biggest problem today is finding the right songs. "The young kids get to choose all the best stuff first. I may be up the hill a little bit, but I ain't quite over it."

While still revered by country music fans and the industry, Jones' material, particularly the new stuff, is rarely heard on mainstream country radio, although his current single debuted two weeks ago at No. 57 on Billboard's Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart.

As may be expected, Jones has an opinion on the state of country music: "My main question for the entire business is, Why do they call it country if it's not country? I hear a station say, 'We're the No. 1 country station in the metropolitan area.' Well, that's the biggest damn lie in the world, because they don't play country music."

As for new country, Jones says, it's "like putting a bunch of corn meal and milk together and frying it up -- it's mush. I can't tell what half of it is." It's a cause Jones won't drop: "I'm gonna stay in their front yard as long as possible and raise all the hell I can. I'm gonna stay in this business and haunt them until we get it back."

Retirement is not on Jones' agenda. "It all boils down to one answer: If you was to retire, what the hell would you do with yourself?" he asks. "Just sit up in a rocking chair and dry up like an old fig until you pass away. You've got to keep doing something."

Jones, who is managed by his wife, Nancy, still tours regularly. "I work enough to keep my band happy, which is a little more than I'd like to," he admits. "We're still drawing good crowds. I know there are plenty of hard-working people out there who want to hear traditional country music and don't care for all that hogwash that's on the radio."

That said, Jones is far from bitter, and he remains humble, declining to accept the mantle of "country's greatest singer" so often bestowed upon him. "I love them for saying that and feeling that way, but there's been so many great singers out there," he says. "I don't think anybody could take the place of Hank Williams. But we've been lucky -- we've had a great career, and we're not through yet."