He was the singer’s singer, acknowledged as the gold standard in country music for so long it’s impossible to tell when he was given that designation. Unlike the Rolling Stones, who called themselves the World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band, or Michael Jackson, who insisted the press label him the King Of Pop, George Jones never bestowed this honor upon himself. It just was agreed by all concerned that he was the best, that there was no one better before or since. Such was the enormity of Jones’ gift: it was towering, overshadowing his idols, influencing all that came in his wake, defining what it meant to be a country singer. It was so big it often seemed that Jones himself was a mere vessel for his voice. Often, it seemed that his voice was something that existed outside of him, something he could harness and shape but not quite control. His phrasing, subtle and supple even when he wasn’t singing ballads, was exquisite and seemingly effortless, the hitches and bends not added for affect–as it could sometimes seem with Frank Sinatra, who often acted a song as much as he lived it–but there because that is how he felt at that precise moment.
Living in the moment was George Jones blessing and curse. It kept his music alive but locked his life in chaos, as he succumbed to a variety of addictions, first booze, then adding drugs along the way. George often sang brilliantly when he was in the throes of addiction but that only underscores the suspicion that the gift controlled him, not the other way around. Certainly, the arc of his career suggests that Jones never was bothered with the nuts and bolts of running his life, letting others take the reigns from the start and always seeming happier when somebody else was running the show. Unlike Sinatra–a comparison that’s hard to shake, as there are so few singers that embody the entirety of their sound, style, even century as Frank and George–Jones never exerted much control over what he recorded, nor did he ever bother to take the time to shape those songs into something resembling a concept album. He sang what he was given, sometimes throwing a fuss–reportedly, he was none too keen on “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” his defining anthem — but almost always singing the song anyway.
This lack of discipline meant George Jones often served at the whims of his manager or producer and he had three great ones in his life: Pappy Daily, the east Texas recordman who discovered him in 1953; Billy Sherrill, the Columbia/Epic house producer in Nashville who began working with Jones in 1969; and Nancy Jones, his fourth and final wife who helped the singer get sober in the 80s and steered him through a final act lived on the straight and narrow. During that final act, which overlaps somewhat with the second as George didn’t get out of his Epic contract until 1991, Jones made solid, respectable records that were often good and sometimes celebrated–1994′s The Bradley Barn Sessions and 1999′s i both received strong reviews at the time, although it’s unlikely many listen to them now–but didn’t quite expand his legend. That legend was built entirely on his work with Daily and Sherrill, strong-willed men that used Jones for their own needs.
Daily discovered George early in the ’50s and immediately recognized Jones’ potential. Once he signed the singer, he started to work George hard, releasing single after single before “Why Baby Why” caught fire in 1955. That one hit didn’t guarantee stardom–it did not help that it was undercut by a quick cover by Webb Pierce–so Daily continued to record Jones, letting honky tonk alternate with rockabilly (including a one-off single released under the brilliant pseudonym Thumper Jones) until there was enough of an audience Daily sold the entire Starday label to Mercury. Jones was the reason why Mercury was interested in Starday and their investment paid off in 1959 when the galloping “White Lightning” became his first number one single. From that point, George was a fixture on the charts, with 1961′s “Tender Years” — a chart-topper for seven weeks — pushing him into true stardom. Just as George’s star was ascendant, Daily moved house once again, taking himself and his singer over to United Artists. This was at the beginning of the ’60s and this was the beginning of George’s true golden age, as he honed his trademark ballad style–the influence of Johnny Paycheck, a bassist in his touring band The Jones Boys, was unmistakable–cut dozens of hard country duets with Melba Montgomery, sang western swing and the purest Texas honky tonk that ever was recorded. Musically, he was at a peak and he was selling well so Daily did what a good recordman would do. He recorded George. Over and over again. Soon came full-length tributes to idols Hank Williams and Bob Wills, gospel albums, covers of contemporary country hits and, every so often, brand-new tunes. It was a lot of songs–enough so George essentially stopped writing–but these prolific UA years would pale in comparison to what came at Musicor, a label that signed Daily and Jones in 1965. Over the course of six short years, Jones recorded hundreds of songs, stockpiling material for an innumerable amount of LPs. There were certainly hits–some of his very best, including “A Good Year For The Roses,” which Elvis Costello later covered, and “Things Have Gone To Pieces”–but Jones also re-recorded his old hits, even songs he released early in his tenure at Musicor, and spent even more time covering his peers, singing a bunch of old tunes and even more songs that were distinguished by little more than Jones’ impeccable voice.
From one perspective, that was enough. HIs talent was so immense that it was a pleasure to simply hear him sing but from another angle, there was just no quality control. Pappy Daily knew he had a cash cow and he was determined to milk it dry, a position that tarnished George’s first golden era without quite dimming it completely. At Musicor, Pappy literally had George sing anything he thought would sell, including some trippy paisley-colored protest tunes, but there was never a sense either Jones or Daily had musical interest in the emerging progressive country movement, nor did George show much interest in the red-hot Bakersfield sound. He covered Buck Owens and Merle Haggard not because he wanted to co-opt a bit of that electrified twang but rather because it was on the charts. Similarly, when outlaws took over Nashville in the ’70s, George never was part of the posse. He was always happy to be part of the music machine, which explains why he flourished artistically once he parted ways with Daily in ’70s and rooted himself in Nashville, making his home at Epic Records with Billy Sherrill.
Sherrill had long been the house producer for Epic in Nashville and one of his great successes was Tammy Wynette, the singer Jones fell madly in love with at the end of the ’60s. George and Tammy were anxious to cut records together so Epic was the natural home for Jones. Sherrill seized the opportunity to record George and, savvy guy he was, he came up with a brilliant idea: he had George songs that mirrored his well-publicized lovelife. Initially, this meant many songs about joy and love–his 1972 debut for the label was called We Can Make It, a testament to his faith in the relationship–but soon this meant many songs of recrimination and regret as George & Tammy’s relationship fell apart. The titles of the hits tell the taiel: “We Can Make It,” “Loving You Could Never Be Better” and “What My Woman Can’t Do” were followed months later by “The Grand Tour” of an empty home, “The Door” closing,” then admitting “These Days (I Barely Get By),” remembering “Memories Of Us” after “The Battle.” Sherrill and Epic were not above exploiting this fractured relationship–the album Jones released after the divorce was Alone Again–and, in a sense, the 1980 hit “He Stopped Loving Her Today” acted as the coda to this story: when Jones sings “He said I’d love you til I die,” it’s understood that George is singing about Tammy, his one true love that he’d never let go.
Life didn’t really turn out that way. His true love was Nancy, who he married in March of 1983. George and Nancy were married until he died on April 26, 2013, during which time he occasionally sang with Tammy but there never was a question that his heart belonged to Nancy, who gave him not only companionship but direction in his career, a more benevolent version of Pappy Daily. Sherrill did manage to corral some excellent songs for the sober Jones–the not-bad “She’s My Rock” tapped into a bit an autobiographical bent reminiscent of the George-and-Tammy anthems, but they’re eclipsed by the self-mythologizing “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” (a song that now seems more poignant in his death) and similarly nostalgic novelty “The One I Loved Back Then (The Corvette Song)” and the rather brilliant “The King Is Gone (So Are You,” a hybrid of novelty and tear-in-beer drinking song–but he began to run on autopilot around the mid-’80s. Jones’ ’90s albums for MCA were more ambitious, either swinging for the charts (1993′s High-Tech Redneck) or buttressing his reputation as the greatest country singer that ever lived (The Bradley Barn Sessions, Cold Hard Truth).
He basically stopped recording in the new millennium because he didn’t need to. He made money on the road and he’d already put his life, all of its little ups and downs, on record. Already, his legions of fans were sharply divided upon what constituted his golden age. Some will always contend his earliest records were his best, that they were the purest country he ever recorded. And they’re right: this is when George was in thrall to Hank Williams but also when he started to develop his own voice, relying on dusty Texas barroom ballads (“Color of the Blues,” “Window Up Above”), writing the effervescent “Tall Tall Trees” with Roger Miller, rocking with abandon on “Revenooer Man” and “White Lightning.” Some claim George’s finest was in the ’60s, starting with his late-period Mercury side “Tender Years” and extending through “She Thinks I Still Care,” “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds,” “You Comb Her Hair” and “Brown To Blue,” exquisite ballads that showcase his ease as a singer, as he slides into familiar, reassuring settings. And they’re right: these United Artists recordings, along with the Musicor years that followed, are George’s golden age, when he sang anything and everything, always making it sound robust, even wild, and the productions have just enough texture and color–piano and backing vocals, reverb and strings–so they sound fresher, closer to what modern country is than the ’50s sides. Some argue to the death that the Billy Sherrill-produced singles and albums of the ’70s are Jones’ peak, as he not only was focused but Sherrill’s productions are mini country-operas, the country equivalent of Sinatra’s work with Gordon Jenkins. And they’re right: far from swallowing Jones, Sherrill’s wall of sounds enhances and illuminates him, giving the recordings a richness that’s never too sweet but also strong evidence of how Jones could indeed sculpt that natural gift when working with the right producer.
For a singer that always seemed country and never strayed toward pop, George Jones contained multitudes. There was an unfathomable depth even in his simplest recordings, and there was enough variety to satisfy any kind of country fan. Now that he’s truly gone, it becomes clear that there is nobody to fill his shoes and, furthermore, there’s nobody that is even attempting to try. For a while, there were plenty of imitators: the new traditionalists of the ’80s were filled with the likes of Alan Jackson and Randy Travis, singers unashamed of their debt to the great man. But after the ’90s, particularly after the rise of Garth Brooks, there just weren’t many vocalists who even attempted to be the stylist George Jones was, a singer that could bend any song to his own will. Part of this is due to their clear rock influence–the rhythms were louder, even on the ballads, pushing the vocals to the background–but country radio became even more indebted to records that were records, not grand live performances. And, in a way, that’s George’s legacy, too, as that’s a natural extension of the dense psycho-dramas of his classic ’70s work with Sherrill, as they were the first Nashville recordings to be so much about the totality of the recording. No matter how good those Sherrill productions are, what hooks you in is the voice, the supple, weathered, elastic voice that zeroed in on the nuances of every song, even the silly ones. Over and over, George Jones proved what he could do couldn’t be done, and now that he’s gone the enormity of his gift and his influence seems greater than ever. Forget the “country” modifier–George Jones very well may have been the greatest singer that ever lived.
A Spotify List, one that attempt to get it all but probably doesn’t: King Is Gone: RIP George Jones
Essential George Jones: Spirit of Country http://www.allmusic.com/album/the-essential-george-jones-the-spirit-of-country-mw0000626732
A double-disc collection released in 1994, The Essential George Jones: The Spirit of Country chronicles the prime of George’s career. Many great songs are missing–it’s only 44 songs, how could it not miss a few essentials?–but it tells his story better than any other collection.
The Essential George Jones
Close inspection reveals that this 2006 double-disc isn’t a replica of the 1994 collection. It’s not quite as good as that ’94 double-disc–it casts its net wider, so too many major hits are missing–but, unlike that set, this is in print, which gives it a significant advantage. Of all the comps you could purchase today, this does the best job of providing an overview of his entire career.
Definitive Collection 1955-1962
The best available collection of George’s earliest recordings, concentrating on Starday/Mercury sides but dipping into the UA singles at the end.
The Complete United Artists Solo Singles
Released earlier this year, this double-disc rounds up all the As and Bs George released as a solo act while he was at United Artists. This is when he struck gold with “She Thinks I Still Care” and “The Race Is On” and racked up a number of chart singles along with great pure country tunes. In some ways, this was his peak.
The Great Lost Hits
George’s Musicor recordings were impossible to find for years but at the end of the 2000s the licensing restrictions loosened, resulting in two completist sets for Bear Family and this wonderful double-disc set for Time/Life. This rounds up all the charting songs Jones had for Musicor along with a few stray songs and this, in some ways, presents him at a peak. He was recording too much at this point–the Bear Family boxes can test the patience–but he was singing beautifully, as these hits prove
Anniversary: Ten Years of Hits http://www.allmusic.com/album/anniversary-ten-years-of-hits-mw0000190520
The first and still the best roundup of George’s Epic hits, this winds up telling the tale of George & Tammy’s tumultous marriage, then provides some lonesome codas–including his signature song “He Stopped Loving Her Today”–that are gorgeous.
The Grand Tour
If you’re looking for one proper album that captures everything great about George Jones, you might want to turn here, a 1974 collection that may be his best album.
THE BOX SETS
Cup Of Loneliness
Currently out of print–and it may wind up being supplanted later this year by a Bear Family set–this collects the majority of George’s Starday and Mercury recordings, which are the hardest, purest country he ever cut.
She Thinks I Still Care: The Complete United Artists Recordings 1962-1964
Jones jumped ship to United Artists in 1962 and started recording an astronomical amount of material. All of it is captured on this Bear Family set, not all of it great, but all of it good, and it’s kind of astonishing to hear Jones tackle all these styles without a hitch.
Walk Through This World With Me: The Complete Musicor Recordings 1965-1971, Pt 1
Until this set, George Jones’ Musicor side were locked up in the vaults. This and its companion reveal how much great material he made in these six years but they also reveal how much he recorded: he cut more than could be sold, which makes this box slightly exhausting. Nevertheless, there are gems to be found here and it’s worthwhile for the dedicated.
A Good Year For The Roses: The Complete Musicor Recordings 1965-1971, Pt 2
Like its companion Walk Through This World With Me, A Good Year For The Roses contains more music than may be necessary, as Jones recorded simply too much when he was signed to Musicor. This has some of his weirdest music (“Poor Chinee,” “Unwanted Babies”), along with some of his best, which makes it great for those that want to immerse themselves in Jones in the thick of his recording career.
Step Right Up 1970-1979: A Critical Anthology
Released on the Australian label Raven, this is a terrific collection of George’s best Sherrill-produced Epic singles.
George Jones Sings Hank Williams (http://www.allmusic.com/album/george-jones-salutes-hank-williams-mw0000691586)
An earlyMercury LP where George in thrall to his idol Hank Williams. He cut another Williams tribute for UA but this is a purer, better album than its successor.
New Favorites of George Jones
One of his earliest albums for UA, it’s also one of his best, capturing a good mix of strong songs, covers, rip-offs and hits.
George Jones Sings Bob Wills
While he was at UA, George recorded gospel albums, tributes to Hank Williams and Bob Wills, the latter being perhaps the best thing he did at the label.
Blue And Lonesome
Expanded upon its CD reissue, this collection of basics winds up seeming nearly transcendent thanks to a sharply-selected collection of bonus tracks.
Great Songs of Leon Payne http://www.allmusic.com/album/the-george-jones-sings-the-great-songs-of-leon-payne-mw0000075920
It’s hard to call any Musicor-era LP a considered masterpiece but this album of Leon Payne songs may be the best thing he did for the label.
A Picture of Me (Without You)/Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half As Bad As Losing You)
A two-fer of two of George’s greatest albums for Epic–both produced by Billy Sherrill, as all of his Epic records were–this makes a case that Jones spent time on crafting albums, which all other evidence refutes.
Memories of Us/The Battle http://www.allmusic.com/album/memories-of-us-the-battle-mw0000246877
These two albums chronicle the dissolution of George’s relationship with Tammy: they’re operatic and moving, some of the best music he ever made, but almost too calculating on Sherrill’s part. Nevertheless, this is gorgeous music.
I Am What I Am
The album that has “He Stopped Loving Her Today” also has a wealth of broken-hearted ballads and rivals The Grand Tour as his best album.
Vintage Collections With Melba Montgomery http://www.allmusic.com/album/vintage-collections-series-mw0000179879
Tammy Wynette was exier but Melba Montgomery was the best duet partner George Jones ever had and this collection rounds up all the best moments the two had together.
George & Tammy: Greatest Hits
Original 1977 LP contains all the big hits George & Tammy had together. Other comps came later but this is still the best distillation of their partnership.
Cold Hard Truth
The last album George cut that made any impact, Cold Hard Truth is slightly too indebted to good taste but it nevertheless is a strong record, the best he made during his third act.