Wednesday, May 01, 2013

A Tribute to George Jones

As I mentioned in my previous post, George Jones is one of my favorite artists regardless of genre, and I wanted to put together something in tribute to him. What follows is some choice video and audio clips from YouTube of some of my favorite songs by the man who is rightly being hailed as the greatest country music singer ever.

"Seasons Of My Heart" (1955) Town Hall Party


Some of my favorite material by Jones is the early hardcore honky-tonk sides he cut for the Starday and Mercury labels between 1955 and 1960. Some will tell you he had yet to find his own voice, and it is true that his earliest sides lean a little too heavily on the Hank Williams/Lefty Frizzell influence. But to my ears he became his own singer fairly quickly. "Seasons Of My Heart" was originally cut in 1955, but I think this Town Hall Party clip is a little later, possibly from 1959.

"Thumper" Jones - "Rock It" (1956) [No video]


Jones had a fairly fraught relationship to rock and roll music throughout his career, starting in 1956 when he recorded a few rock and roll numbers under the pseudonym "Thumper" Jones. While this is some fairly crazed sounding rockabilly, Jones never really cared much for rock music, and his discomfort with the genre is evident in these recordings. I don't think many would argue George made a mistake in deciding to exclusively devote himself to country music.

"You Gotta Be My Baby" (1957) Town Hall Party [Introduction by Tex Ritter]


This is one of the earliest video clips I was able to find of Jones. Here he is performing one of his great early honky-tonk scorchers on Town Hall Party hosted by Tex Ritter. On an odd note, Ritter introduces Jones as standing only five feet tall, but he was actually about 5'7", which is not really all that short (or at least I hope not as the Possum still had a couple inches on me).

"Eskimo Pie" (1957) [No video]


Novelty songs would play a huge role in Jones' career through to the end. Some would claim Jones was wasting his talents on such lightweight material, but I've always found (most of) his novelty numbers fun and refreshing. "Eskimo Pie," recorded in 1957 is one of the weirder ones, it's an answer song of sorts to the briefly popular sub-genre of country songs about inter-cultural romance (see also Bobby Helms' "Fraulein" and Hank Locklin's "Geisha Girl," both also from 1957). This attempt to cash in on a trend did not pay off in a hit, but it still gives me a giggle today. I actually had to buy a bootleg (or grey market import) CD to first obtain this track. I almost never buy bootleg recordings of my favorite rock artists, but for George Jones I was willing to make an exception.

"White Lightning" (1959) [Unknown Source]


"White Lightning" was one of Jones' biggest hits, and one of his better known songs in rock music circles. If you listen closely you might just hear a trace of the ghost of "Thumper" Jones here. This was about as close to rock and roll as Jones ever got successfully. Written by The Big Bopper, "White Lightning" was later covered by The Fall, among other rock acts.

 "Cup Of Loneliness" (1959) [No video]


Jones recorded some great country gospel numbers and "Cup Of Loneliness" features what is, in my opinion, one of the greatest vocals of his career. There is a real soulfulness to his vocals on this number that cannot be denied.

"Out Of Control" (1960) [No video]


Drinking songs played as large a role in Jones' career as alcoholism would play in his personal life. The desperation in his voice on "Out Of Control" is absolutely spine chilling. Nobody could do this kind of song as well as Jones, not even Merle Haggard.

"She Thinks I Still Care" (1962) Country Music on Broadway


Jones switched labels to United Artists in 1962, around the same time he started to fully develop his "mature" ballad style. This is one of my favorite country ballads and still sounds great all these years later.

"Brown To Blue" (1964) [No video]


I first became aware of "Brown To Blue" thanks to a cover version by Elvis Costello from his "country" album Almost Blue in the 1980s. It took me years to hunt down Jones' original version. I first acquired it on a United Artists LP called Trouble In Mind, and later on the Bear Family complete United Artists box set. Today I am happy to report that the song is available  without too much bother on Omnivore Recordings outstanding Complete United Artists Solo Recordings CD in pristine mono sound, just the way millions first heard it as they cried away their troubles into rivers of whiskey and beer. Penned by Jones himself, I can understand Costello's affection for the song. It's a terrific divorce song with clever lyrics that show the Possum could do more than just sing.

"Love Bug" (1965) Mathis Bros. Country Social


"Love Bug" was one of the bigger novelty hits Jones had during his stint with his third label, Musicor. It's goofy, but I love it. This amazing clip came from a local Oklahoma City television program that was sponsored by and filmed in an appliance store. How cool is that?

For many years, Jones' Musicor recordings (1965-1971) presented a real challenge to anyone wanting to assemble a reasonable George Jones collection. The rights holders for the Musicor catalog were apparently reluctant to license the material to labels that did not exclusively distribute through truck stops. I still have a few cut rate truckstop collections that I bought trying to track down key Musicor tracks. They have titles like "20 All-Time Country Classics," but the songs appear to have been chosen more or less at random from his Musicor catalog. Invariably, the artwork on these releases features a picture of Jones (his hair lacquered into a helmet) taken some ten to twenty years after the recordings featured on the albums, with his image pasted over some gold records or a drawing of barn.

Collecting Musicor tracks was made even more difficult by the fact that when the label originally released the material on LP they repeated many tracks from album to album. You could easily buy 10 Musicor LPs and find they had less than 60 unique tracks between them. Add to that the fact that there was a very good chance the previous owners of the albums were in no condition to operate a record player (let alone heavy machinery) when they listened to the albums. And then there was the sheer volume of material he recorded for the label--better than 250 songs recorded over period of just over five years--some of it great, some of it good, some of it unnecessary.

"Milwaukee Here I Come" with Tammy Wynette (1969) The Wilburn Bros. Show


Jones performed "Milwaukee Here I Come" on several TV programs with his then new wife Tammy Wynette, but for contractual reasons he could not record with her while still under contract to Musicor. On the I'll Share My World With You LP Jones performs this song with Brenda Carter, but it's Wynette pictured with her new husband on the album cover. Confused? That was probably the idea.

Happily, the Musicor years are now exhaustively documented on two massive Bear Family box sets (9 CDs in total). For those who just want to hear the highlights, Time/Life recently released a nice 2CD set called The Great Lost Hits. While this period is occasionally dismissed by critics, in part due to the admittedly shoddy way the catalog has been handled over the years, Jones recorded some great material for Musicor; "Walk Through This World With Me," "If My Heart Had Windows," "Love Bug," "I'm A People," "Sometimes You Just Can't Win," "Burn Another Honky Tonk Down," etc., etc. Hearing this material made the effort I went through to obtain the songs worthwhile.

"A Good Year For The Roses" (1970) [No video]


This is another Jones song that first came to my attention thanks to Elvis Costello's treatment of it on Almost Blue. Jerry Chesnut's lyrics are brilliant for the way in which they capture how often mundane things can loom large in our minds during an emotional crisis. This was one of Jones' final hits at Musicor, and finds him edging closer to the "countrypolitan" style that he would embrace fully at Epic with producer Billy Sherill. As always, his delivery is heartbreaking and superb.

"The Grand Tour" (1972) [Unknown Source, introduction by Tammy Wynette]


When Jones moved to Epic records in 1971 he hooked up with "countrypolitan" producer Billy Sherill. Sherill and Jones recorded many hits together over the next two decades. He recorded a lot of great material during his Epic years, and in general his albums from that period are much better thought out than those of the Musicor years. A Picture Of Me (Without You), George Jones (We Can Make It), Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half As Bad As Losing You)--Jones developed a thing for parenthetical titles during this period--The Grand Tour, Alone Again, The Battle, I Am What I Am, etc. are all very strong albums with a lot to recommend them beyond the hits.

"Golden Ring" with Tammy Wynette (1976) Hee-Haw


When his marriage to Tammy Wynette ended badly, Jones' personal life spiraled out of control like a bad honky-tonk song. Nevertheless he continued creating some fine music, some of it with Wynette. "Golden Ring" is another all-time country classic with a brilliant circular motif worthy of the great filmmaker Max Ophüls. I am also very fond of the duets Jones recorded earlier in his career with Melba Montgomery, but his recordings with Tammy Wynette are really something special.

"He Stopped Loving Her Today" (1980) The Ronnie Prophet Show


Recorded near the nadir of his personal life, Jones initially rejected what would become the biggest hit of career ("He Stopped Loving Her Today") for being too maudlin. On paper maybe it is too much, but Jones makes it work, and no doubt this is the song he will always be best remembered for. It is amazing to me that someone who had stumbled so badly in his personal life could still rise to such great heights in the recording studio. Many consider this the best country song of all-time, and I'm not sure I'd argue with them.

Whatever you do, avoid picking up Double Trouble, the album Jones recorded with his former sideman Johnny Paycheck in 1980. Comprised entirely of rock and roll covers, Double Trouble demonstrates once and for all the wise choice Jones made when he decided to stick exclusively to country music. The Possum just never had much of a feeling for rock and roll.

"I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair" (1992) Country Music Hall of Fame Induction


After leaving Epic, Jones spent much of the 1990s on the MCA label trying to keep up with the "new country" sound with mixed results.  Here he is seen with younger stars Alan Jackson, T. Graham Brown, Patty Loveless, Pam Tillis, Mark Chesnutt, Marty Stuart, Vince Gill, Joe Diffie, and Clint Black at his Country Music Hall of Fame induction.

His MCA period (1991-1998) coincided with the apex of my own Jones fandom, and I dutifully picked up most of these albums when they came out and gave them a fair chance. None of them are bad, but they are only rarely inspired. The lone exception is the his final duet album with ex-wife Tammy Wynette, One from 1995. Wynette and Jones harmonize together so naturally they could sing the phone book and it would be compelling. The phone book might actually be more compelling than a couple of the songs on One, but in general it is a strong effort.

"Choices" (1999) CBS TV


The later part of Jones' career was disappointing to some (okay, to me) in several respects. While he remained in good voice until near the end of his days, his choices were mostly conservative and he avoided taking some of the risks that revitalized the careers of contemporaries like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. However, he seemed to put his all into making his 1999 album Cold Hard Truth something special. Unfortunately, this "comeback" was cut short by a relapse of alcoholism that resulted in an SUV crash and some serious injuries.  Jones won a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for "Choices" the lead track from that album.

As big a fan of Jones as I am, even I could not bring myself to buy an album called The Rock: Stone Cold Country 2001 in which he duets with Garth Brooks on a song called "Beer Run (B Double E Are You In?)," a number which was penned by no less then five Nashville song doctors. Or as Jones once sang, "uh-uh no, never."

I remember reading the liner notes that Elvis Costello penned to the reissue of his Kojak Variety album in which Elvis recounts his disappointment that Jones rejected a demo tape he had prepared specifically for him. The tape was full of some inspired choices like Bruce Springsteen's "Brilliant Disguise" and other songs Costello judged worthy of Jones' brilliant voice. You can hear Costello's versions on the Kojak Variety deluxe reissue and imagine what might have been. Who knows if Jones ever even listened to the tape, but I would love to have been a fly on the wall when and if he did.

While Jones may not have sung the kind of material Elvis Costello and I wished he had during the later years, there was a very real integrity to the way he conducted his career from start to finish. Jones never rebelled against the Nashville system, he embraced it fully, even past the point where he was reaping many rewards from the system, either artistic or financial. While he was respected by a new generation of performers, he was practically persona non grata on country radio for the last quarter century of his life. His last top-ten country hit came in 1988, and even teaming up with Garth Brooks only got him up to number 24. Many of his singles from 1990 onward did not chart at all. This is entirely country radio's shame, not Jones'.

George Jones remained a stubborn country traditionalist to the end, committed to Nashville and its way of doing things. Unlike Johnny Cash, he wasn't about to start singing songs written by folks like Trent Reznor, Beck, or artistes who go by names like "Bonnie Prince Billy." I respect Johnny Cash's open-mindedness and willingness to take artistic risks, but I also respect Jones' insistence on doing things his own way. As a result, his work is not as well appreciated outside of country music circles as it should be, and even there he is not justly esteemed because of country radio's fixation with youth.

And that's a shame because Jones was one the great artists and singers of the late twentieth century. Strictly as a singer and interpreter of song his name belongs in the rarified company of names like Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday. Like Holiday, Jones had a knack for transforming even slight songwriting into great art. As a country artist, George Jones belongs in the discussion among the all-time greats: Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, The Carter Family, Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers and a very few others. We'll never see another like him.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice overview of a long and multifaceted career, Pete. And I think this might be the first time Jones and Ophuls have been mentioned in the same sentence.