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The second coming

Inspired by Johnny Cash with his ring of fire, a slew of ageing crooners are pursuing their desires

If you were a much-loved crooner of advancing years, your pockets nicely lined with the rewards of your career, what would you do? Ease your aching joints on to a gold lamé chaise longue? Embark on a life of long lunches and fine wine? Or look at your track record, rip it to shreds and go back to square one? In 2008 it has, it seems, become de rigueur to go for the last option.

The latest pensionable singer to re-enter the pop fray is Tom Jones, who, astonishingly, has only just taken up songwriting now, in his late sixties. He will showcase his new seriousness on an album, 24 Hours, to be released next month. Speaking from his promotional charabanc somewhere in Wales, Jones tells me that at his age, it is "natural to get more personal. I want to say what I feel, who I am, and perhaps get more serious."

Jones wrote both the music and the lyrics for the new album - supported, it should be said, by a large songwriting team. The impressive first single, "24 Hours", is about a man on death row, and comes accompanied by a grainy black-and-white video. The only cover version on the album is a dramatic take on Bruce Springsteen's "The Hitter", a song about a boxer who has finished his ring fighting days.

Jones says the project was partly inspired by a chance meeting with Neil Diamond, another former pop singer who reinvented himself in his sixties with two critically acclaimed albums, made in collaboration with the metal, pop and hip-hop producer Rick Rubin. "I remember bumping into Neil at an airport back in 2000, and he was obviously fed up. He wanted to get back to basics and write songs about his life now. That got me thinking."

He was drawn to the idea of expressing his artistic maturity, rather than continuing to add to the line of commercial cover versions (Prince's "Kiss", Arctic Monkeys' "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor") that have kept him in business over the years. "Christ, I just got fed up of singing other people's songs," he says.

“I was making a commercial-sounding album of covers. Then I heard a song by Richard Hawley and realised where I was going wrong”

Jones is one of a growing number of singers aged 60-plus aiming for late-onset pop credibility. Glen Campbell, the 72-year-old Rhinestone Cowboy, has returned with an album of cover versions, and Tony Christie, the Yorkshire-born popster who first hit the charts with "I Did What I Did for Maria" in 1971, has recorded a lovely, sombre new album, Made in Sheffield, produced by the much-admired singer-songwriter Richard Hawley.

The chief inspiration to these ageing singers is Johnny Cash, the country singer who found stardom again in his late sixties with his pared-down American album series (also produced by Rubin). The success of that project was to move Cash away from a core country audience, which had grown tired of him, and repackage him for a generation of young college rock fans. Rubin and Cash made five records together, featuring originals and covers of artists such as Leonard Cohen, Nick Lowe, Nick Cave and Will Oldham.

Rubin's song choices became more focused on death as Cash grew older: his 2002 cover of "Hurt", a song about pain, regret and loss by the industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, took on new meaning, delivered in his faltering baritone. When Cash died the following year, it became his elegy. The influence of the Cash experiment is clear to see in the choice of imagery employed by the new, more reflective Tom Jones.

Campbell's new album, Meet Glen Campbell, offers a different kind of reinvention. Like Cash, he had a TV show in the late Sixties and found fame with country music classics, including Jimmy Webb's "Wichita Lineman" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix". Meet Glen Campbell, in contrast, includes cover versions of contemporary hits by Foo Fighters, Travis and U2. To each track the singer brings something new and unexpected. His version of Green Day's "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" is a meditation on the past, and the Velvet Underground's "Jesus" takes on an evangelical fervour, sung by a recovering alcoholic and cocaine addict who has recently become a born-again Christian.

Campbell denies that the record is a cynical attempt to cash in on, well, Cash, explaining that he is just one inspiration, along with Campbell's own new-found faith. "After all, I'm not a songwriter, I'm a singer, so to make people relate to a song is what matters to me. I tried to write stuff when I was younger, but it was awful - 'You broke my heart, so I'll break your neck'."

Of all these recent late reinventions, the most artistically successful is that by 65-year-old Tony Christie. His biggest hit, "Is This the Way to Amarillo", was re-released in 2005 and topped the UK charts for seven weeks. "I was making a commercial-sounding covers album after 'Amarillo'," he tells me over a coffee in Soho. "But it wasn't working. Then I heard Richard Hawley's Coles Corner one night on the way home from the studio, and realised where I was going wrong." The Mercury Prize-nominated Hawley, who is influenced by rockabilly, was a fan of Christie's, too. Christie went to see him on tour and was told to shelve his other project immediately. From now on, Hawley would be to Christie as Rubin was to Cash.

Made In Sheffield, the album of cover versions and originals that emerged from their partnership, is a celebration of the home town that Hawley and Christie share, and features songs from various Sheffield songwriters, some of them well known (Arctic Monkeys) and others more obscure (Martin Bragger).

"We wanted to make an album with meaning more than anything else," says Christie. "So, to make a record that placed unknown songs next to bigger ones - that was very rewarding.

"At this stage of the game, I think people can understand why I want to think about where I'm from, and show that there's more to me."

"24 Hours" by Tom Jones (EMI) is out on 17 November

"Made In Sheffield" by Tony Christie (Decca) is out on 10 November

"Meet Glen Campbell" (EMI) is out now

late-onset cool:

the pioneers

  • Buena Vista Social Club Fifty years after the closure of the original club, the iconic Cuban group made the ultimate comeback in 1997, with a little help from Wim Wenders and the American guitarist Ry Cooder.
  • Madonna With Ray of Light (1998), Madge left bubble-pop behind and got serious. The album was nominated for three Grammys (won two); the title track bagged another couple.
  • Johnny Cash American Recordings (1994), the first of a critically acclaimed series of albums made with the producer Rick Rubin, inspired a string of career comebacks.
  • Neil Diamond In 2005 Diamond released 12 Songs, which some critics consider to be the best album of his career.
  • Shirley Bassey A genre-busting appearance at Glastonbury in 2007 (pictured right) thrust her album Get the Party Started into the UK charts at number.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The death of Gucci capitalism