By Jason Eady
(LSM July/Aug 2013/Vol. 6 – Issue 4)
When LoneStarMusic asked me to write a column about my favorite George Jones album, it took me about five seconds to decide which one I wanted it to be: Shine On.
Shine On was released in 1983, almost 30 years into Jones’ career, and that one point alone is what makes this album what it is to me. As a recording artist, it seems that with every album you record you discover more and more about yourself. Every album is a “record” of where you are creatively at that point in time, and hopefully with each album you grow into yourself a little more. With every artist that I have loved listening to through the years I can watch this progression happen. Everyone starts out trying to sound like someone else, whether they mean to or not. It’s inevitable. It’s all you know about how to perform and it’s the foundation of everything you have created so far. In early Merle Haggard records you can hear him imitating Lefty Frizzell; with Otis Redding, it’s Sam Cooke; with Bob Dylan, it’s Woody Guthrie … the list goes on forever. On the early Jones records, you can hear a definite Hank Williams influence. While you can hear traces of what we later think of as that “George Jones sound,” it’s still in its infancy, still buried deep down under all of the traditional sounds that he learned to imitate. But what separates the greats from the artists that we forget about over time is that the great ones move in tiny steps with every album towards finding their own voice — something that defines them and that tells the listener within 10 seconds of hearing a song exactly who they are. And when you carry that out over 30 years, the growth and change is especially apparent, revealing a fully evolved artist who gives the world something unique in a way that only they can.
To me, Shine On drops you down right on the peak of George Jones as that fully formed artist who knows exactly who he is and it pours out of him in what seems like a completely effortless flow. When I think of George Jones, while I love all of his earlier, honky-tonk flavored hits of the ’60s, the first thought that comes to my mind is the smooth vocals that sound like a steel guitar, the moves and inflections that only he could make, the emotion that comes through every word, and his willingness to keep his timing subdued to give those vocals room to breathe. Shine On represents all of that. The emotion that comes through every word sung on this album comes from a place that only experience can bring, both as a performer and as a person who has lived life’s ups and downs. Jones was 52 years old when this record was released. He was a notorious drinker, his career had gone through several highs and lows, and he was just coming off of a resurgence in his career, having just released a few years earlier his biggest hit, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” He was riding high and low all at the same time.
Jones never really wrote a lot of his own songs, at least not by this stage of his career. He didn’t have to. He found great songs and then he created, using those lyrics and melody as his raw materials. For some, a great song is the finished product that has to be presented. To me it seems like Jones treated a great song as the foundation that he built on. Some of the tracks on Shine On are great songs (like “She Hung the Moon” and “Tennessee Whiskey”) and some are only average songs, but when you listen to the album from start to finish, none of that matters. You don’t catch yourself judging any of the songs; all that you’re conscious of is that you’re listening to one of the greatest country music singers of all time, plain and simple, at his finest.
The producer of this era of Jones’ career, Billy Sherrill, deserves a lot of credit for clearing the way for the artist to be who he is. There is nothing fancy going on here, no tricks, no gimmicks. Just sparse arrangements slowed down to a pace that lets the singer feel like he has room to work. That same benefit comes across to the listener. Jones is doing so much on this record, and the arrangements give you time to take in every bit of it without straining to hear or keep up.
Shine On is a record that could only be made by a man who lived as much as George Jones did. There is no way a younger artist, including a younger Jones, could ever have made a record with the emotion, confidence and truth that this record has on it, because those are all qualities that come from fully living life and staying around to tell about it.
I have two records on permanent display in my living room to remind me of what it is that I am trying to do as an artist. Not what I want to copy, but what I hope to someday grow into. This album is one of those.