George Jones

TrackAlbum / Single
She Thinks I Still CareUnited Artists UA 424
Walk Through This World With MeWalk Through This World with Me
The Grand TourThe Grand Tour
The DoorEpic 8-50038
He Stopped Loving Her TodayI Am What I Am
A Good Year for The RosesGeorge Jones With Love
If My Heart Had WindowsIf My Heart Had Windows
Beneath Still WatersMy Country
A Picture Of Me (Without You)A Picture Of Me (Without You)
I Just Don't Give A DamnMemories Of Us
Duets
Multiply The HeartachesWhat's In Our Hearts
That's All It TookIt's Country Time Again
Take MeWe Go Together
A Lovely Place To CryMe And The First Lady
We're Gonna Hold OnWe're Gonna Hold On

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Contributor: Keith Shackleton

George Glenn ‘Possum’ Jones was born in Saratoga, Texas, on September 12th, 1931 and died at the grand old age of 81. In later life he acknowledged there was no way he was supposed to be still living, but he’d probably do it all over again the same way given the chance. That’s a huge call, given the full-on torment of much of his time on this planet. He was the cat with more than nine lives, uncomfortable in his own skin.

Mr. Ozzy Osborne and Mr. Keith Richards? Mere kittens.

Four wives, three divorces. Mansions bought, opulently decorated, then quit without a second thought. Hundreds of cars bought, sold, given away, or crashed. All the trappings of success, used up and discarded, reacquired and discarded once more. Many, many guns. Addiction, arrest, bankruptcy, madness. Failed country theme park ventures. Bizarre lawnmower incidents.

Oh, and along the way, the small matter of creating some of the finest country music ever.

One of his nicknames was ‘No Show’ (in concert in the latter part of his career, No Show Jones was the show opener, in wry acknowledgement of his former unreliability): he could never be counted on to turn up. If he did appear, at recording session or gig, there was no telling how he’d feel. Drunk or sober, angry or calm, hungover and remorseful or antsy and vicious. And there was no guarantee which Jones would turn up… maybe Old Man George (sounding like a creaky Walter Brennan), or George as De-doodle the Duck (with a cranky Donald Duck voice). To the exasperation of everyone, he would talk and quarrel with himself using these schizoid voices.

But the real George, when he appeared? Dylan, Sinatra, Ray Charles and a very long line of country singers fall over themselves to credit George. As Tammy Wynette says, “When it comes to singin’, no one can touch him. They never have been able to, and they never will.”

We’d be here all night, and this page would be a mile long, if I dug any further into George’s history … for an elegant introductory summary of the man’s life, head towards Nick Tosches’ great article on George, written in 1994, and Jerry Renshaw’s Nine Lives of Old Possum, from 1999.

It’s astonishing that he made the amount of music he did, and I’ll admit right here I’m not a completist: I’ve listened to a goodly amount, but I’ve really only scratched the surface. I’ve gone where I’ve been shown the way in biographies and articles, and then dug around for the good stuff that I know I like. So let’s go excavate the huge Jones mine and find some pure gold.

 

FIVE THUMPING GREAT COUNTRY HITS

She Thinks I Still Care. Not his first #1 (that milestone achieved by 1959’s rock and rollin’ White Lightning), but his first really huge chart topper. George had also hit big with an evocative slowie called Tender Years and, from that point on, his stature as a country balladeer grew and grew. He’d become comfortable with his own voice; the early high and lonesome sound he’d copped from listening to legends like Hank Williams and Webb Pierce had been shaken off, and he was using his mid and lower registers to better effect.

He had to be pestered to record She Thinks I Still Care by his long time mentor Pappy Daily, recording studio operator Bill Hall and famed producer ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement, who all recognised a big hit when they heard one. George eventually relented and it rocketed to #1 in September 1962. Don’t trust the narrator, by the way. “Just because I rang her number by mistake today”. Yeah right. He cares, sure enough.

Walk Through This World With Me. The Nashville Sound of the early 60s, with its lush vocal harmony backing and romantic string arrangements, aimed for an all-encompassing appeal and attempted to put country in the pop charts. It was the sound of money, according to Chet Atkins.

George, as a dyed in the wool country boy, initially resented this sonic intrusion, but that resentment gradually turned to begrudging acceptance. He’d created a fuss about She Thinks I Still Care, but that was nothing compared to his stance on Walk Through This World With Me. He didn’t want a bar of it. But Pappy kept on pushing, and one day, when George was about one fifth too far gone, he gave in and laid it down. Listen to his effortless smooth baritone as he positively strolls through it, allegedly under the influence. Released in January 1967, it was his first #1 in five years.

The Grand Tour. George asks us to view the wreckage of his life, by inviting us into his deserted home, pointing out the domestic remnants of a marriage that has completely fallen apart. He sings it, and we feel the pain, because in 1974 he was living it. George was an incapable wreck of a man (twice Tammy Wynette filed for divorce, withdrawing the first petition) and to add further to his torment, his mother died the same year. The studio, thanks to Billy Sherrill, might have been his only place of solace, and considering the circumstances, this performance is extraordinary. Jones’ sixth #1.

For Tammy’s point of view, try her answer song, Your Memory’s Gone To Rest. The Grand Tour, incidentally, was co-written by the man who was to become Mr. Tammy Wynette #5, George Richey.

The Door. Staggeringly, Jones followed up The Grand Tour with another huge #1 record. Jones’ partnership with Sherrill was skyrocketing even though he was destroying himself (Tammy’s was in decline). In late 1974 the door had pretty much closed on their marriage. Right around this time Tammy might have been singing I Don’t Think About Him No More but this is George’s take on the fateful sound of that door slamming.

Narrowly missing the list also from this period is the ‘what happened after The Door closed’ drama of These Days I Barely Get By, written with Tammy.

He Stopped Loving Her Today. “He thought it was too long, too sad, too depressing and that nobody would ever play it … He hated the melody and wouldn’t learn it.” says Billy Sherrill of George.

“He said I’ll love you till I die …”, it opens, and of course, the man dies, because He Stopped Loving Her Today – his only escape from torment following the break-up of a romance is death itself. Our narrator sees the dead lover lying in state, the “first time I’d seen him smile in years”… an appalling vision. And yes, Jones could have been right; it could have been clichéd and parodic in the hands of a lesser interpreter, but he found the emotion in the song, the sincerity where seemingly at first glance there is none, delivered it straight and gave it its power.

Sherrill of course knew the song would play out as the truth, alongside the idea that Jones was still carrying a torch for Tammy, and it sold by the truckload. Up there with the greatest songs in country music, from a top notch album – 1980’s I Am What I Am. It has two other giants in I’m Not Ready Yet, and If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will), plus seven more quality tunes. It is the Toppermost of Sherrill’s Countrypolitan sound and Jones’ biggest hit.

Check out the confident, bright eyed, bushy tailed guy on the album cover. At that time, he was faking it more than a little, but he was soon to meet Nancy Sepulveda, who would become Mrs. George Jones #4, a dedicated woman with a will of iron with whom he would eventually find peace of mind. He often credited her for saving his life.

 

FIVE MORE EXTRAORDINARY SONGS

A Good Year For The Roses. A small part of me didn’t want to include this song, but I decided not to let overfamiliarity with Elvis Costello’s cover taint my thinking. This is one of George’s greatest ever recordings and demands inclusion. Back in the day, when I read about Billy Sherrill’s disgruntlement over Costello wanting to record an album of country classics, I was on Elvis’ side. Well, with age comes experience and wisdom, and these days, I fully understand why Sherrill was so curmudgeonly.

This is a flawless, unbeatable performance, and a bespectacled, loud mouthed, Limey … punk rocker, god dammit … can’t hold a candle to it. If by some chance you’ve never listened to George Jones sing A Good Year For The Roses, remedy that right now.

If My Heart Had Windows. There’s never been a shortage of people who wanted to cut a record on George (Pappy Daily, especially). He’s often been in no mind to resist that, and not been in a good enough condition to come up with the goods. So the Jones assembly line rolled too often, but you can find many golden threads running through the coarse cloth of much of his Musicor output.

This is the title track of a 1967 album and a #7 hit on the country charts. George had previously cut a whole album of songs by Dallas Frazier, but this love song is his best interpretation, and essential listening.

Beneath Still Waters. Here’s another that stands out like a beacon amongst songs that are pretty plain. “Beneath still waters, there’s a strong undertow/The surface won’t tell you what the deep water knows”. George understands her love for him is gone, despite appearances to the contrary. It’s the story of a large part of his life, but there’s no acknowledgement of responsibility here, just sadness.

A Picture Of Me (Without You). One of his best songs about failed romance, this was a stellar performance on one of George’s early sessions with Billy Sherrill, and the album of the same name from which this comes is good too. Sherrill sets up that familiar late-night feel in the production, George is at ease and singing terrifically, and doesn’t overplay it one iota. It reached #5 on the chart, and it might just be my favourite Jones song.

I Just Don’t Give A Damn. In contrast, instead of being all alone and totally incomplete without his lady love, here’s a different George: for once he just wants to be left alone to do the things he does without any damn busybodies telling him how to run his life. But he knows he’s not always going to feel that way, indeed his conscience is starting to prick him already, and you know he’ll be thinkin’ and drinkin’ pretty soon. It’s no surprise when you find out it’s from Memories Of Us, the first album following his divorce with Tammy. The song titles from this record alone tell a fine tale.

 

FIVE GRAND DUETS

Multiply The Heartaches. Melba Montgomery was great friends with George, and their closeness shows in the wonderful Multiply The Heartaches; her voice dovetails naturally right in with him. Melba recalls only the positive side of Jones – at that time in his career, he was well on his way to raising hell, but hadn’t quite managed it – yet she was one of the few women who were close to his flame but didn’t get burnt.

From the same album, and just missing out on the list, is We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds, the first huge national hit for Melba. She wouldn’t have another really big smash until the chart-topping No Charge in 1974.

That’s All It Took. I don’t think their duets are definitive, but I had to include one from George and Gene Pitney, who shared the Musicor label in the 60s, chiefly because listening to two of the most unique voices in popular music duke it out on the same chunk of vinyl is a mind-boggling experience.

Take Me. In 1971, George had to buy himself out of his Musicor contract and split with Pappy Daily so that he could move to Epic and record with Tammy and Billy Sherrill. He’d already recorded Take Me solo, as suspicious of it at first as with many of the ‘pop’ tunes he was presented with. Sherrill got Jones to drop his register, and recorded the singers separately (part of the problem was Jones’ style; if you don’t move your lips much, it’s damn hard for a duettist to follow you closely) to produce this understated gem, which reached #9 on the charts. Listen with a sense of anticipation as the two of them delicately trade verses.

A Lovely Place To Cry. Both George and Tammy are specialists in sad songs, and those are what you’ll generally find on my lists. Sad and sincere though: anything with more than a hint of corn I’ll be avoiding like the plague. Their 1972 hit The Ceremony is just one hokey step too far gone, with its ‘Here Comes The Bride’ church organ intro and preacher voiceover. So those special tunes can be hard to find amongst George and Tammy’s prolific output, but this is one … an autobiographical tale of unhappiness despite all the trappings of success. And here’s another …

We’re Gonna Hold On. George and Tammy’s relationship was on the slide by 1973 but this is a jaunty “root for us, folks, we just might make it” statement of intent. No defiance, though: they’re telling us that there’s still time for them to put things right, but the tension in the song is palpable. Fans always bought into this kind of sentiment and it was George and Tammy’s first #1 together.

Contrast these with the early pure country duets with Margie Singleton. What did not make the list is any tune with more than a whiff of ‘George Jones plus special guest’ about it. There’s a lot of those, and they’re mostly all cheap.

NB: The Tammy Wynette quote is from Jimmy McDonough’s superb biography Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen. The Billy Sherrill quote is from Bob Allen’s George Jones: The Life and Times of a Honky Tonk Legend. It’s an OK book, so I can’t recommend it as much as I’d like to. Infuriatingly, it doesn’t have an index.

 

George Jones official website

George Jones biography (iTunes)

See Keith’s toppermost on Tammy Wynette here and catch up with him at The Riverboat Captain website.

TopperPost #376

5 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Nov 1, 2014

    Great list… Will throw two early classics (‘White Lightning’ and ‘Just a Girl I Used to Know’) and a few late ones (‘It Aint Gonna Worry My Mind’ and ‘Don’t Touch Me’) into the mix…

  2. Keith Shackleton
    Nov 2, 2014

    White Lightning was a biggie, of course, but I’m a sucker for the slow songs. Just A Girl.. is very fine, and you can still hear him trying to shake off tones of older country legends in that one. He was on a little bit of a streak in that late period you talk about.. Cold Hard Truth is a pretty good record too.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Nov 2, 2014

    Keith, for some reason when you mentioned slow songs, ‘The Window Up Above’ came to mind. It is such a brilliantly understated vocal performance… Agree with you on ‘Cold Hard Truth’ – ‘Choices’ is such a great song and as Merle Haggard pointed out in this piece on George in Rolling Stone – it was a ‘perfect’ one for him to record at that point in his career…

  4. Peter Viney
    Nov 2, 2014

    I’m not familiar with much, but James Taylor wrote Bartender Blues for George Jones, and it was a C&W hit. James Taylor sings backing vocals on Jones’ version. Trisha Yearwood also covered it on the George Jones tribute album, The Owen Bradley Sessions. Robbie Robertson voted for George Jones as one of his top ten singers in a Mojo magazine poll in 1998 which made me investigate further. I find the George Jones version of Bartender Blues overwrought next to the pared-down Rick Danko cover, but there you go.

  5. David Lewis
    Nov 2, 2014

    George’s voice’s influence is immense. If you listen to Merle Haggard, he’s there. Waylon Jennings has a lot of George in his voice. If you listen to Buck Owens, whose a lesser singer than those two (though still a very good one), he has a real George twang in his voice. Buck leads us to Garth Brooks and Dwight Yoakam. And there’s a lot of other George around. 3rd best white male voice of the 20th century (after Elvis and Sinatra), and it’s a close thing.

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