Hard living and harder drinking are the time worn clichés of the old school country singer, and one of the hardest drinking lights in the country music firmament is George Jones. His nicknames have been variations on self-loathing: the diminutive Possum, the self-fulfilling No-Show Jones, and the persona of Deedoodle Duck. Jones channeled self-hatred in his moniker, on the surface a cuddly mascot, but one holding depths of pain and remorse.
The opening chapter of Bob Allen’s biography of the country singer reads like a Jim Thompson novel, a spiraling rage that turns inward until even the bottle fails him. Jones’ signature anthem, 1979’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” is more popular on the funeral circuit than on country music radio. Its story of a man whose love ended only because he died was selected for the National Recorded Sound Registry, and while it’s countrypolitan strings, courtesy of producer Billy Sherrill, threaten to overwhelm the song in syrup, Jones’s relies not on pyrotechnics but phrasing to sing his sad song to heaven.
Despite the years of self-inflicted damage, Jones is still active at age 81, an elder of country music in the middle of his farewell tour. Jones’ stature as a singer is complicated by the label-jumping he’s made throughout his career. Omnivore does justice to one of the formative stages of Jones’ output with The Complete United Artists Solo Singles. The material, spanning from 1962 to 1966 is not consistent. For every classic like the opening, “She Thinks I Still Care,” and “The Race Is On,” there’s an uninspired gospel number like “He’s So Good to Me.”
A handful of tracks are more curiosities than classics. The set includes several Christmas novelties like “My Mom and Santa Claus (Twistin’ Santa Claus),” a variation on “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” that replaces a peck with the twist. Even more unusual is the B-side “Geronimo,” a tie-in to a Chuck Connors movie. Songwriter Johnny Western wrote the song in a couple of days after Jones’s manager-producer Pappy Daily mentioned that the singer loved the TV show Have Gun Will Travel.
But then the chaff falls away and the wheat sustains in a ballad like “I Saw Me.” When you hear Jones’s mature phrasing convey deep founts of pain and self-doubt, you remember that this is one of the great vocal interpreters. If you throw some Billy Sherrill strings on “Lonely Christmas Call,” from 1966, you could be listening to something from the classic 1970s era.
The Jones catalog can still be a hit-and-miss adventure for the uninitiated, and even an essential survey like Anniversary: 10 Years of Hits passes over great album tracks like One Woman Man’s “The King Is Gone.” Complete UA Singles is less definitive than that Epic Records-era collection, but any fan of the singer will have to own both.