By Scott Schinder
(LSM July/Aug 2013/Vol. 6 – Issue 4)
George Jones, who left this world on April 26, 2013, is widely regarded as the single greatest vocalist that country music has ever produced. Although he started out as a raucous honky tonker, he evolved into a peerless ballad singer possessing an uncanny ability to immerse himself in a song’s lyric, along with a capacity for expressing heartbreak, regret and self-recrimination with a level of emotional nuance that’s never been bested, in country or any other genre.
Despite his well-documented alcohol and drug problems and tumultuous personal life, Jones remained one of country’s most consistent hitmakers for most of his six-decade career, scoring more than 150 hits as a solo artist and duet partner. No fan of rock ’n’ roll, Jones never felt the need to stray far from his country roots or work outside of his stylistic comfort zone in search of a commercial crossover. Despite this, he was instrumental in expanding country music’s appeal beyond its traditional constituency, simply because he was so great that discerning listeners couldn’t help but take notice.
In his time, Jones made a prodigious number of inspired, enduring recordings. But, thanks to the sheer volume of his recordings, culling the must-hear music out of his massive body of work can be a daunting task. Although Jones was the sort of performer for whom the old he-could-sing-the-phone-book cliché was coined, the fact is that he recorded a good deal of mediocre (or worse) material. And while it’s true that his interpretive gifts routinely elevated the mawkish ballads and silly novelty tunes with which he was sometimes saddled, his catalogue contains so much good or great work that there’s really not much point in being a completist with his catalog — at least not until one has thoroughly absorbed the essential stuff, of which there is plenty.
Another thing to keep in mind when surveying Jones’ oeuvre is that, with a few key exceptions that we’ll discuss later, his albums generally don’t make the strongest case for his artistry. Indeed, he began his recording career as a singles artist, and more or less remained one up until the end, even when he was making long players. While such forward-thinking contemporaries as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, and outlaw upstarts like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, embraced the LP format as a liberating creative canvas, Jones generally did his best work in concentrated three-minute doses. Consequently, the stewardship of Jones’ recorded legacy rests largely in the hands of reissue compilers, who’ve done a mixed job of treating his work with the care and attention that it deserves. For better or worse, then, the best way to assemble a Jones library is to stick with the cream of the compilations, augmented by a selection of his most inspired original albums. It’s also helpful to note that the distinct phases of Jones’ recording career — and the corresponding best-of releases — can generally be broken down by his record-company affiliations at the time.
Born on Sept. 12, 1931, East Texas native George Glenn Jones received his first guitar at the age of 9 and began busking on the streets of nearby Beaumont soon after. By his teens, he was singing in local honky tonks and performing on small radio stations. After returning to Texas from California following a stint in the Marine Corps, Jones’ talents impressed producer and Starday Records co-owner Pappy Daily, who signed him, encouraged him to find his own voice rather than emulating his heroes Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, and released his first single, the energetic, self-penned “No Money in This Deal,” in early 1954.
Jones continued cutting singles, many of them self-written, for Daily and achieved a commercial breakthrough in the summer of 1955, when “Why Baby Why” became a Top 5 country hit, despite having to compete with a Webb Pierce/Red Sovine cover version that charted higher than Jones’ original. The infectious, fiddle-driven tune established Jones on the country chart, where he became a regular presence with such subsequent Starday releases as “What Am I Worth” and “Just One More.”
In 1956, the same year that Jones joined the Grand Ole Opry, Daily attempted to tap into the booming rock ’n’ roll market by having the singer cut some unremarkable rockabilly singles under the name Thumper Jones. That unsuccessful effort would mark Jones’ only real flirtation with rock ’n’ roll (although many of his tunes would be covered by rock artists in subsequent decades).
Beginning with 1957’s “Don’t Stop the Music,” Jones’ Starday recordings were distributed by Mercury Records and bore the Mercury label. The association with a higher-profile label won Jones wider success with such tunes as the infectious, good-humored “White Lightning,” which became his first No. 1, topping the country charts for five weeks in the spring of 1959. In 1961, “Tender Years” marked Jones’ emergence as a ballad singer, spending seven weeks at No. 1 and previewing the direction that would later carry him to his greatest successes.
Jones’ Starday/Mercury work has been compiled widely, with varying degrees of thoroughness and respect. But the most authoritative is probably the two-CD Cup of Loneliness: The Classic Mercury Years, which distills the best and most interesting tracks from this formative phase and remains an absorbing listen for most of its 48-track length. (Initial pressings of Cup of Loneliness contained three additional tracks, but suffered from such flimsy packaging that we recommend the sturdier truncated edition.)
Cup of Loneliness does a fine job of capturing the earliest manifestations of the duality that would help to make Jones such a consistently compelling artist. The up-tempo hard-country numbers seethe with barely-contained youthful energy, while such ballads as “Color of the Blues” and “Window Up Above” maintain an introspective sensitivity that consistently rings true. Elsewhere on the set, such lesser-known tunes as “Relief is Just a Swallow Away” and “I’m Gonna Burn Your Playhouse Down” offer additional insight into Jones’ creative development. The singer’s level of commitment extends to tongue-in-cheek novelties (“Who Shot Sam”) and utter weirdness (“Slave Lover”), and hearing those tunes alongside reverent gospel numbers like “Family Bible” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and heartfelt revisitations of country standards like “You’re Still on My Mind” and “Heartaches by the Number” spotlights the vibrant balance of the sacred and the profane that’s a fundamental building block of Jones’ musical persona.
When Pappy Daily took a job with United Artists Records as A&R man and staff producer in 1962, Jones went with him. He scored an immediate No. 1 smash with his first UA single, his definitive reading of Dickey Lee’s “She Thinks I Still Care,” an instant classic that demonstrated his knack for subtly wringing every ounce of emotion out of a lyric. Jones followed it with a string of hits (culminating in the much-covered “The Race is On”) whose relatively gritty production contrasted the slick “countrypolitan” sound that had begun to dominate mainstream country recordings at the time.
During his United Artists stint, Jones began recording duets with Melba Montgomery, whose big, aching voice proved to be a fine match for Jones’ own. Although the pair’s first collaboration, “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds,” was their only Top 10 hit, they would continue to record together through 1967, often tapping into a bluegrass sensibility that was rarely present in Jones’ solo work.
Although many of Jones’ early LP releases are generally of the hit-singles-plus-filler variety, two of the more interesting ones are 1960’s George Jones Salutes Hank Williams, which finds him paying tribute to his idol while in the process of escaping his shadow, and 1962’s George Jones Sings Bob Wills, which reinterprets Wills’ Western swing as hardcore honky tonk with surprisingly effective results.
Bear Family’s typically lavish five-CD box set, She Thinks I Still Care: The Complete United Artists Recordings 1962-1964, lives up to its title, gathering all of Jones’ UA solo and duet tracks, and maintaining the German label’s usual high standards of packaging, sound quality and annotation. But its hefty price tag will limit its appeal to affluent fanatics. Less obsessive listeners will do fine with Omnivore’s 32-track The Complete United Artists Solo Singles or Razor and Tie’s two-CD, 40-song She Thinks I Still Care: The George Jones Collection. There’s also the 20-track George Jones & Melba Montgomery: Vintage Collections, which contains the duo’s most noteworthy pairings.
In 1965, Jones and Daily switched labels again, this time to Musicor, a New York company that had been launched in the early ’60s by songwriter/publisher Aaron Schroeder, and which Daily and former UA A&R man Art Talmadge had purchased from Schroeder. Jones’ five-year stint with Musicor was a highly productive one, with the artist recording nearly 300 songs and scoring 17 Top 10 country hits, including such trademark classics as “Walk Through this World with Me,” “Love Bug” and “A Good Year for the Roses,” along with a wealth of less memorable material. Indeed, Jones’ Musicor output mixed many significant triumphs along with a fair amount of misfires, failed experiments and wrong-headed attempts at stylistic bandwagon-jumping (like some ill-advised efforts to replicate Buck Owens’ Bakersfield sound). But despite Musicor’s tendency to flood the market with substandard Jones product, he remained one of country’s most popular performers.
Jones recorded a few more duets with Montgomery while at Musicor, but his most intriguing vocal partner during this period was not a woman. The label’s biggest artist at the time was pop-rock idol Gene Pitney, a stratospherically emotive vocalist who also possessed substantial songwriting skills and a penchant for stylistic experimentation. When Musicor teamed Jones and Pitney for a pair of LPs, the versatile Pitney was wise enough, and enough of a country fan, to lean towards Jones’ style rather than attempt to get Jones to bend towards his. The resulting recordings are a consistent pleasure, with the two vocal iconoclasts’ divergent styles meshing surprisingly well. The 17 tracks that Jones and Pitney cut together — most of them covers of familiar country standards — have been compiled on several CDs, but we’re partial to Bear Family’s George Jones & Gene Pitney, which augments their duets with Pitney’s terrific 1966 LP, The Country Side of Gene Pitney, which includes a credible reading of “She Thinks I Still Care.”
The Musicor catalogue now rests in the unreliable hands of the Nashville licensing company Gusto, which has spun Jones’ Musicor recordings into countless sloppily assembled packages on its various in-house imprints. Gusto has also licensed the material seemingly to anyone who asks, from innumerable fly-by-night outfits whose cruddy products continue to haunt the bargain bins, to prestigious reissue labels who’ve assembled their Jones releases with appropriate care. The latter group includes a pair of typically exhaustive (and expensive) Bear Family boxes, Walk Through This World with Me: The Complete Musicor Recordings 1965-1971 (Part 1) and A Good Year for The Roses: The Complete Musicor Recordings 1965-1971 (Part 2). Time-Life’s two-CD The Great Lost Hits offers a more reasonably priced alternative, even if most of its 34 tracks would fit onto a single disc.
As a side note: Many of the Gusto/Musicor-derived packages include rerecordings of his earlier hits that Jones cut for Musicor. While those remakes have been a source of confusion for unsuspecting listeners, Jones’ monumental talent is such that it’s enjoyable and enlightening to hear him revisit his own classics, even when the differences between versions are relatively subtle ones.
By the time he signed with Epic Records in the fall of 1971, Jones’ alcoholism had begun to threaten his health and had helped to destroy his second marriage. By then he was married to fellow country icon (and Epic labelmate) Tammy Wynette, with whom he would record numerous duets. He had also parted ways with Daily, increasingly unhappy with his longtime mentor’s production and with his unwillingness to grant permission for Jones to record with Wynette.
Jones would spend almost two decades with Epic, a remarkable run that encompassed some of his greatest musical successes and worst personal failures. At Epic, Jones was teamed with producer, songwriter and countrypolitan architect Billy Sherrill, who produced Wynette as well. Sherrill was known for his trend-setting lush, string-drenched arrangements as well as his authoritarian working methods, which contrasted Daily’s laid-back approach. Despite that adjustment, Jones and Sherrill forged a long and fruitful collaboration, and the best of their work together ranks with the finest music that either man ever made.
By this point, Jones had already largely transformed himself from wild-eyed honky tonker to sensitive balladeer, and Sherrill smoothed out most of his remaining rough edges. But Sherrill’s sophisticated productions consistently placed the emphasis squarely upon Jones’ voice, and the producer’s sense of quality control was considerably stronger than Daily’s had been, resulting in a series of ’70s albums — e.g. A Picture of Me (Without You), Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half As Bad As Losing You), Memories of Us and Alone Again — that were generally solid and often excellent. Particularly noteworthy are 1974’s The Grand Tour, which is haunted by Jones’ concurrent breakup with Wynette, and whose title track is probably the most harrowing song ever top the country charts; and 1976’s The Battle, recorded after the couple’s divorce and suffused with deep longing and bottomless loss.
Through the first half of the ’70s, Jones and Wynette also recorded prolificially as a duo, scoring several hits (e.g. “The Ceremony,” “Near You” and “We’re Gonna Hold On”) whose portrayals of connubial bliss contrasted the duo’s increasingly rocky offstage relationship. They continued recording together for awhile even after their divorce, culminating in 1976’s fine Golden Ring.
Jones’ commercial stock began to dip seriously for a few years in the late ’70s, as his alcohol and cocaine abuse worsened and he gained a reputation for brandishing guns, going on drunken rampages and not turning up for gigs. The latter habit earned him the nickname “No-Show Jones”; he is said to have missed 54 engagements in 1979 alone.
That period did include a few bright spots, even if Jones was in no condition to take advantage of them. A pair of 1978 duets, teaming Jones with Johnny Paycheck on Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” (from the otherwise forgettable duo release Double Trouble) and James Taylor on Taylor’s composition “Bartender’s Blues” (featured on the patchy Jones album of the same name), generated some chart action and set the stage for the making of 1979’s all-star spectacle My Very Special Guests. But Jones failed to turn up at the original recording sessions, and had to overdub his vocals long after his special guests recorded theirs.
Although his health continued to decline as his addictions continued, Jones’s career actually rebounded in 1980. In addition to “Two Story House,” a pointed Top 10 reunion with Wynette, he released I Am What I Am, a confident return to form that became Jones’ biggest-selling album to date, achieving platinum sales status — a rarity in the country world at the time.
I Am What I Am’s consistent excellence belies the fact that Jones was at one of his lowest ebbs personally when it was made. Sherrill subsequently revealed that Jones was in such bad shape at the time that the recitation in “He Stopped Loving Her Today” — a song that’s rightfully regarded as one of Jones’ greatest performances — was recorded 18 months after the first verse. Despite Jones’ initial dislike of the song, which he considered morbid, it helped to rescue his career, winning a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance and being named Song of the Year by the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association.
Jones’ post-I Am What I Am Epic releases settled into unremarkable professionalism, but he continued to hit the country singles charts through much of the ’80s, and finally began to overcome some of his demons with the support of his fourth wife, Nancy Sepulveda. The hits had petered out by the end of the decade, though, as country radio stations radically altered their formats in favor of younger artists — many of whom, ironically, cited Jones as an influence. His serviceable 1988 cover of the 30-year-old Johnny Horton tune “One Woman Man” became Jones’ final Epic hit, and his final solo release to reach the Top 10.
Unlike his earlier periods, Jones’ Epic years don’t lend themselves to easy anthologization. But the aforementioned original albums, The Grand Tour, The Battle and I Am What I Am, are all must-haves for any serious Jones fan. Meanwhile, two similarly-titled, but different, Epic double CDs — 1994’s The Essential George Jones: The Spirit of Country and 2006’s The Essential George Jones — each offer a good selection of Epic material mixed with tracks from other eras, while the single-disc Anniversary: Ten Years of Hits features a decent assortment of Epic tracks, and 16 Biggest Hits collects the best of Jones’ duets with Wynette.
In the ’90s, Jones signed with MCA Records for a series of solid, workmanlike albums — recorded with a series of Nashville producers, in contrast to the lengthy associations he’d had with his first two producers — that failed to find a mass audience in the slicked-up, youth-obsessed modern country market. A move to Elektra’s short-lived Nashville imprint Asylum yielded 1999’s slightly edgier Cold Hard Truth, whose reflective single “Choices” only barely scraped into the Top 30, despite the inadvertent publicity blitz resulting from the car crash that nearly killed a drinking-and-driving Jones a few months earlier.
Jones then recorded a series of albums for his own Bandit label, the most interesting being 2003’s The Gospel Collection, for which Sherrill came out of retirement, and 2005’s Hits I Missed… And One I Didn’t, on which Jones interprets 11 country classics that he’d originally passed on recording, plus a stark, unsparing revisitation of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
In addition to his celebrated duets with Melba Montgomery, Gene Pitney and Tammy Wynette, over the years Jones recorded numerous collaborations with other artists, including contem-poraries like Johnny Paycheck and Merle Haggard (most recently on the 2006 Hag-sings-Jones/Jones-sings-Hag album Kicking Out the Footlights … Again) as well as acolytes like Randy Travis, Alan Jackson and Dierks Bentley. For 1994’s all-duets The Bradley Barn Sessions, he was even paired on tracks with Keith Richards and Mark Knopfler. Outtakes from those sessions turned up 14 years later on Bandit’s 2008’s Burn Your Playhouse Down: The Unreleased Duets. Despite being the last release of Jones’ lifetime, the album, like most of his late-career celebrity match-ups, isn’t particularly essential. Then again, George Jones is singing on it, and no record that includes that voice can ever be completely dismissed.
MR. RECORD MAN’S TOP 5 GEORGE JONES ALBUMS
1) Cup of Loneliness: The Classic Mercury Years (Mercury, 1994)
Covering Jones’ formative 1954-1962 days on Starday and Mercury, this two-disc set documents the process of a raw world-class talent gradually finding his voice. There are some familiar classics here — “Why Baby Why,” “White Lightning” — but the real story is in the unruly tangle of wild-eyed honky-tonk tunes, bittersweet ballads, reverent gospel numbers, screwy novelties and classic country covers, and how Jones mines them all on his way towards discovering his true musical self.
2) The Complete United Artists Solo Singles (Omnivore, 2013)
Jones’ short but crucial 1962-1964 stint with United Artists found him gaining confidence and emerging as the singer that we’ve come to know. Beyond the iconic hits “She Thinks I Still Care” and “The Race Is On,” this 32-track single disc offers a solid summary of the period, although it omits his ace UA duets with Melba Montgomery.
3) The Grand Tour (Epic, 1974)
By 1974, Jones was at the top of his game musically and was arguably country’s biggest male star. But his addictions had begun to threaten his health and his career, and his storybook showbiz romance with fellow country icon Tammy Wynette was on the skids. Out of that wreckage came one of Jones’ darkest, most personal and most cohesive albums. He never sang better than this, and never interacted more effectively with Billy Sherrill’s lush production.
4) I Am What I Am (Epic, 1980)
Possibly the most unlikely of his many comeback albums, I Am What I Am finds Jones fully in control on an emotionally nuanced set of aching ballads and grown-up honky tonk tunes that offers a deceptively direct, consistently riveting encapsulation of his craft and artistry. The heartbreaking “He Stopped Loving Her Today” would be worth the price of admission on its own, and that’s just scratching the surface here.
5) The Essential George Jones (Epic Legacy 2006)
Jones’ best work from his prolific two-decade run with Epic Records ranks among the most expressive and compelling music ever created in the country idiom. This two-CD, 40-track set offers a decent overview of Jones’ Epic output, along with a selection of tunes from other periods. While it’s hardly a definitive representation of this crucial era, it’s a start.