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CD Review: The Essential George Jones

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There’s more than one song in the world that can make me tear up like my favorite dog done died. It’s in my bones. I was brought up on country music, and as a descendent of Welsh-Irish-German-English-French farmers-miners-clergy-unlettered rabble, I am very much genetically disposed to break into maudlin song at the drop of a hat given the opportunity and a surprisingly small quantity of strong drink.

Nobody in the world does a good weeper better than the estimable George Jones, possessor of the greatest voice in the history of country music, and arguably deserving of a mention as one of the best interpreters of song — period — in the entire twentieth century. You take Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, all your operatic divas, and even Ol’ Blue Eyes, too. Me, I’ll take the mysterious man with the close-set eyes from the hardscrabble pine barrens of East Texas.

There’s a good reason why. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of George Jones crooning his towering hits “A Good Year For The Roses” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” over the staticky radio my father kept on the workbench in the garage right above the ratchet set. The first of these two was probably one of the first songs I ever heard in my life, and the second was, when I was six, one my very first favorite songs not produced by Disney. Just to prove that I had unimpeachably excellent taste in music even at that tender age (oh, yeah), two other favorite songs from my kindergarten years were “Cloudy and Cool” by Chet Atkins and “There Ain’t No Good Chain Gang” by Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. The keening string sections and Jones’ over-the-top vocals made a big impression on my young mind and had two long-term effects. Aside from leaving me with an unfortunate and abiding affection for the schlockier output of 70s-era Nashville, those garage days also made me a George Jones fan for life.

Since that time, I have gone through phase after phase, getting way into Pink Floyd, hair metal, Wax Trax industrial, punk, ‘grunge’, Neil Young, Zappa, Elvis, Tom Waits, Charles Mingus, and so on and so on world without end amen. And yet, time after time I return to the music of my early childhood: I always return to rockabilly, honky-tonk, and especially the music of Johnny Cash and George Jones.

What is it about George Jones that’s so alluring? Honestly, seen from a distance he’s almost comical. If any fan of his ever wants an unpleasant shock, I recommend playing one of Jones’ more purple performances (say, “The Grand Tour” or “He Stopped Loving Her Today”) back to back with one of Jim Nabors’ bigger slices of schmaltz, such as “The Impossible Dream” or “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Although the two men approach a song differently, there are similarities: each is gifted with an absurdly resonant voice that they use to maximum effect, and they share a knack for working the hell out of a song. But most importantly, the two have done their very best work when trying their damndest to get into self-parody’s pants.

In a deeply perceptive essay collected in his book Grown Up All Wrong, the venerable Robert Christgau (longtime music critic for New York’s Village Voice) captures what, aside from his voice, makes George Jones so compelling. Although his technical prowess and the unique timbre of his voice (seeming to emanate not from the head or chest, but from a constant sorrow choking his throat into a sob) would be enough, that’s not all there is. It’s the strange feeling that there’s something off about the incredibly harrowing performances he turns out at the drop of a hat.

Christgau notes, as many have noted before, that Jones is a famously shallow character. Those close-set eyes don’t seem to hide stunning depths of emotion that he can call on to fuel his histrionic ballads; instead, Jones’ most intense performances always seem to be just that, astounding performances, feats of technique and talent that can be turned on and off like a spigot. Put a song in front of him, and no matter whether it’s a goofy jingle or a musical setting of a Donald Hall poem, he’ll turn out a performance that sounds like it comes straight from the heart.

In short, the man seems to lack introspection. While it’s tempting to hunt in his famously dissipated biography (for example, his tumultuous marriage to Tammy Wynette, or the time he was kidnapped by some business associates and put in a room with a pile of cocaine until he was high enough to agree to their wishes) for clues to the wrenching pain he can communicate in song, those clues seem to be false leads. Instead, we just need to take George Jones at face value: if the song makes you sad, why bother asking whether that comes from the singer or from you?

What the appeal of George Jones all comes down to, at the end of the day, is those immodestly emotive performances delivered in that voice, that astonishing voice, deep and full and rich and sounding as though every syllable is wrenched from the throat of a man caught between desperate prayers and miserable sorrow.

George Jones started his singing career in the saloons and honky tonks of East Texas as a teenager, and after a stint in the Marines (partly to escape the aftermath of his first doomed marriage), he signed with the local Beaumont, Texas label Starday.

At first, there was little hint of the full depth of Jones’ talent. His first few recorded sides were masterful impressions of other singers — Lefty Frizzell, Hank Williams, and Roy Acuff among them — but nothing that sounded like George Jones. Still, between 1954 and 1960, Jones started to build a pretty good career as a hardcore honky-tonker, turning out worthy slices of rockabilly that contained few hints of the full measure of his talent.

But around 1961, Jones turned a corner. Under the guidance of producer “Pappy” Daily (also his former label head and producer at Starday), Jones released three crucial singles — “The Window Up Above,” “Tender Years,” and “She Thinks I Still Care.” In them, he made two great breakthroughs. The first was musical. By slowing the music down from a gallop, and making some more pop-oriented choices in the instrumentation, Daily gave Jones’ voice more room to play with the melody. The results were his first fully realized vocal performances, and although his voice hadn’t yet deepened into what it would become, there were finally glimmers of his fabled tone.

The second innovation was the material. Jones has always thrived on love songs, especially the hard parts of love, but these songs were more plaintive and descriptive than some of his other singles had been. “The Window Up Above” was about a man watching his woman cut his heart out with another man, “Tender Years” was a noble if surely vain pledge to wait for a woman who was still sowing her oats, and “She Thinks I Still Care” was a masterful song full of (naturally) empty denials that he still carried a torch for the woman who’d left him.

It’s at the end of “She Thinks I Still Care” that the first big moment happens, at least to my ears. After a string of protestations, “just because I asked a friend about her,” “just because I saw her out somewhere,” Jones delivers the last line of the song like he had never sung anything previously: “just because I saw her and went to pieces, she thinks I still care.” On the word “pieces,” his voice breaks, falls down an arpeggio, and melts into nothing, all without sounding forced, silly, or out of place. Like the sun breaking through the clouds, it’s the first time we really hear Jones learning what he does best.

After this point, Jones began a two-decade run of wild success, racking up dozens of top-ten hits, touring widely, and continuing to refine his style. He released some very successful duets with Melba Montgomery (including the rough but ready “We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds”), and cut album after album after album for Musicor Records. The Musicor years saw a number of hits, including “A Good Year For The Roses” and “Walk Through This World With Me,” two of his very best ballads, and a boatload of the novelty songs that have been Jones’ stock in trade. The best of these, like “The Race Is On” and the fantastic moonshinin’ song “White Lightning,” rank among his best stuff; the others tend to be completely forgettable.

But at the same time, Jones was beginning a long, slow death-spiral into drink and drugs that soon began to overtake his career. Many of the albums he cut in this period were second-rate affairs, compiled from sessions tossed off with whatever material was at hand when he sobered up enough to realize he was low on money or when his management decided to flood the market further.

By the late 1960s, this had taken its toll. Jones had earned a reputation for missing live dates (and the nickname “No-Show Jones”) and decided to make a change of venue by moving to Nashville. There he formed two of the most important relationships he’d ever make: he met his third wife, country singer Tammy Wynette, and his long-time producer, amanuensis, and creative better half, Billy Sherrill.

With Wynette, Jones began to record a number of very successful duets that also seemed to parallel the arc of their relationship, such as “Take Me” and “The Ceremony.” Unfortunately, after a few years of whiskey, cocaine, and hijinks with handguns and car wrecks, Jones and Wynette were singing “We Loved It Away,” and Wynette was writing for George a solo hit called “These Days I Barely Get By.” As the drugs took deeper hold of him, Jones entered a two-decade career twilight, punctuated by moments of genius and moments of utter ruin.

The greatest of the strokes of genius was 1980’s LP, I Am What I Am. Billy Sherrill was an in-demand Nashville producer, key inventor of the “countrypolitan” sound and devotee of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Consequently, he sought to stuff every crevice of every track he produced with a panoply of strings, steel guitars, keyboards, choirs, and drums saturated with acres of reverb and echo. Although Jones had initially balked at Sherrill’s sound and his autocratic way of running sessions, by 1980 their working relationship had become deep and strong.

It was Jones’ trust of Sherrill that led him to cut for I Am What I Am a song he wasn’t too sure about, an absurdly maudlin, mawkish, pathetic, bathetic, over-the-top ballad called “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” It was the story of a man who pledged eternal love to a woman who refused to love him back, until he finally died of his broken heart. On paper, it seemed to be much the same as dozens of other songs Jones had cut over the last quarter-century, only twice as sentimental. And yet somehow, over months of drunken missed takes and coked-out false starts, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” emerged as the probably the greatest performance of Jones’ career, and one of the finest vocal performances ever committed to tape.

(An aside. What is it about geniuses with drug problems? The mental image of George Jones peeling himself off a sticky studio couch with a crushing hangover and stepping up to the microphone to unfurl a searing and perfect vocal take reminds me of the legendary session that bassist James Jamerson played for Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On. Jamerson reputedly came up with the perfect and eternal bass line of the title song in one heroic take from the floor of the studio, lying flat on his back because he was too high to get up. What is it about geniuses with drug problems?)

Since the high water mark of his “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” his last #1 single, Jones has aged into a gray eminence of country music, releasing decent-to-good albums that sell okay and are mostly totally ignored by the country establishment. His voice has somehow only deepened and become richer with age, even as Jones gets well into his seventies. He has also become one of the great touchstones of country music, a wellspring from which scores of younger musicians have drawn inspiration. And yet, Nashville treats him like a leper. In one telling incident from 1999, the Country Music Association refused to let Jones sing all the verses of his latest hit, the CMA-nominated “Choices,” at the Country Music Awards, citing time constraints. Jones chose to boycott the show instead, and in a surprise move, singer Alan Jackson sang a verse or two of “Choices” at the end of his own CMA performance, in a show of solidarity with one of his idols.

In the same year, No-Show Jones almost lived up to the promise of his other nickname, The Possum. Newly sober yet somehow hammered on vodka, Jones wrapped his car around a Tennessee underpass and very nearly died. Although he had been through countless close shaves and near-death experiences in his career, this one seemed to bring it home to him that it was finally time to straighten up and fly right. With each passing year, it seems more and more likely that The Possum will die peacefully in his sleep rather than as a pink smear decorating a quarter mile of lonesome highway.

Any serious fan of American music really needs to have some George Jones in his collection. But knowing just what to buy can be rough. Jones has recorded dozens of LPs in his half-century career, and the majority are wildly uneven affairs that aren’t really for novices. On the other hand, the greatest hits collections also tend to have drawbacks: they are poorly selected and cheaply licensed, confined to one era or one label’s output, or too broad and expensive for beginners.

The new Epic/Sony Legacy collection The Essential George Jones nearly overcomes all these pitfalls. Like the rest of Sony’s Essentials series (chronicling artists like Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson, Herbie Hancock, and Dolly Parton), it does a pretty good job of introducing novices to the high points of Jones’ career. But at the same time, there are some glaring omissions that keep it from being the one-stop bargain it wants to be.

For this to be the perfect Jones best-of, there are some requirements that must be met. One of them is fidelity. The people who put together The Essential George Jones had the good sense and grace to kick things off with early songs that weren’t big hits, like the non-charting half-berserk rockabilly of “No Money In This Deal,” and the Hank Williams clone, “Why Baby Why.” Although these songs didn’t get a lot of national play, they are crucial to a fair treatment of Jones’ career.

But if you’ve only got two discs to work with, a fair view of Jones career means a nearly unbroken string of slow weepers and mid-tempo duets about love gone bad, going bad, or doomed to go bad someday soon. And indeed, of Essential‘s forty tracks, about thirty are of this ilk, and it’s worth it. On slow songs, Jones’ rich tone and unique way of pronouncing lyrics so that the vowels come out rounded and full are presented to their best advantage, and even though the entire second disc is twenty slow ballads right in a row, Jones’ superhuman talents make sure that every song stands on its own as a fully realized little story.

However, there are a couple areas where Essential falls down. Most importantly, it appears that the compilers weren’t able to secure the rights to any of Jones’ sides recorded for the Musicor label. Although that era of his career, covering about 1965-1971, was one of his most uneven, it’s also an era that contains several stone classics. Any truly essential collection absolutely must include “A Good Year For The Roses” and “Walk Through This World With Me,” to name my two favorites But since these songs aren’t here – and believe me, I’m not just picking nits – this collection isn’t the only George Jones you’ll ever need.

The collection also includes only three songs from the nearly twenty albums Jones has recorded since 1986. In fairness, I understand the need to bias a collection of this kind toward the hits (and indeed, the collection is thick with number-one hits), but in my opinion three songs over twenty years is hardly a fair representation of Jones’ often respectable output in that time.

The Essential George Jones is pretty good, and almost even good enough. But since it skips right over his Musicor years (not to mention most of the last twenty years), it falls a little short in being the only Possum you’ll ever need.

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About John Owen

  • Vern Halen

    Correction – sorry. The Race is On was a cover on the first Georgia Satellites 12″ EP, not the Scorchers, although who knows? – maybe the Scorchers did it in concert. My memory is good, but it’s short.

    Yeah, that whole Nashville thing is odd – I figure if you’d look behind the songwriting credits for many major artists you’d find there’s more ghost writing than you’d ever imagined.

  • Those are two good songs for sure! It’s funny… Jones has this whole parallel career of weird honky-tonk raveups that you never hear about. Just about every LP of his I’ve ever heard has one or two, and some of them are even half-decent. But it’s not what he’s known for, and this Essentials disc doesn’t contain even one of these songs from after 1964. Kinda a shame.

    I’ve actually never been clear on how much hand Jones had in writing any of his material. Although a lot of his early stuff credits him as a co-writer, I get the impression that that’s just a formality for the sake of royalties, and that his co-writers are actually the real songwriters generally.

    I beg any and all blogcritics to set me straight on this…

  • Vern Halen

    Why Baby Why & The Race is On were both covered by Jason & the Scorchers during their career. I;m not a big fan of Jones’ ballads, but he oughta get a medal for writing those two rockin’ classics.