George Jones – The choicest cuts, from the choicest voice
At 20, Jones got married and his wife was pregnant, but he was in the honky-tonks more than he was home, so by the time he was 21, he was divorced and headed to the Marines. It was either that or go back to jail, where he’d already spent a couple of stints for non-support. He was stationed in California, and while on leave, he played out some as “Little Georgie Jones, The Forrester Hill Flash.” (He even appeared a few times on Cliffie Stone’s “Hometown Jamboree.”)
When he learned that Hank Williams had died, George lay in his Marine bunk “the rest of the morning and just bawled,” he remembered in a 1989 documentary. “Lord, he drove me crazy,” he said a few years later in conversation with Elvis Costello. “He kept my mind all messed up.”
In 1954, a civilian again and back in Beaumont, Jones quickly hooked up with the town’s new label, Starday, to record his first sides, backed by Lefty Frizzell’s old road band, the Western Cherokees. The debut single was called “No Money In This Deal”, and he’d written it himself. Like all of his earliest releases, though, it didn’t do much. Label head Pappy Daily told him it was because he was trying too hard to sound like Hank and Lefty. “Can you sing like George Jones?” he asked.
The next year Jones recorded his first hit, “Why Baby Why”, an almost uptempo romp he’d written with friend and frequent songwriting partner Darrell Edwards. It made the country top-10, and so did most everything else he released for the next several years. His first #1, “White Lightning”, came in 1959, after Daily, who was now Jones’ manager, had turned Starday into a subsidiary of Mercury Records. “White Lightning”, from its rockabilly guitar riff to its boogie-woogie piano, was very nearly rock ‘n’ roll. More and more, though, Jones was recording the saddest of ballads. Two of the most successful, “The Window Up Above” in 1960 and “Tender Years” the year after, went to #2 and #1, respectively. No one thought he sounded like Hank Williams anymore.
Over the decades, a great deal has been made of just how much the young Jones sounded like Williams and Frizzell, of how he needed to find his own voice. This is true, to a degree. Clearly, Jones owes a great debt to Williams. In the early ’60s, he recorded not one but two tribute albums to the singer. And we can draw a straight line of influence from Jones’ mellifluous note-bending back to the inspired melisma of Frizzell.
Then again, it’s not like anyone hearing Jones’ early Starday recordings would ever have mistaken the singer for Hank or Lefty. Listening today to the way Jones bounces between the extremes of his range in “No Money In This Deal” (dropping down to practically speak the title line), or the way he stretches and bends words (especially the concluding “why”) in “Why Baby Why”, the techniques that would quickly become his trademarks are clear.
Often overlooked is just how strong a songwriter Jones was in his first half-decade of recording, and how it was the very twists and turns of his own tunes that allowed Jones to refine his unique ballad style. His self-penned songs in these years (included on the two-disc set Cup Of Loneliness: The Classic Mercury Years) are rarely what you would call clever, they don’t recount involved stories, and they aren’t given to poetry like “The silence of a falling star lights up a purple sky.”
Instead, Jones’ best solo compositions — “Just One More”, “Don’t Stop The Music”, “Life To Go” (a 1958 hit for Stonewall Jackson) and particularly “The Window Up Above”, each among the greatest country ballads ever written — use the raw and simple syntax of speech to convey states of mind that are distracted and obsessed, all messed up. They are intensely in-the-moment tableaus of hearts unmoored. “You must have thought that I was sleeping,” Jones sings in “The Window Up Above”, and when he adds, “I wish that I had been,” it is almost too painful to bear.
What makes it bearable, and yet what makes each of these songs all the more devastating, is Jones’ genius for melody. His deftness with blue and memorable melodies, his ability to create them and identify them and phrase within them, is perhaps the real key to the impact of his remarkable voice. Often, when he has written with someone else, Jones’ primary contribution to the collaboration has been the title phrase and a perfect melody, as in the marvelous 1958 hit “Color Of The Blues”. His melodies on these songs, or on the more than 100 other songs he has written or co-written with Edwards and more famous partners (Roger Miller, Leon Payne, etc.) throughout his career, marry haunted words to tunes that treble their power.
“It’s hard to write something different, you know,” Jones muses, trying to pin down what has drawn him to the songs he has recorded throughout his career and, most recently, on Cold Hard Truth. “That’s the reason most of the stuff you hear nowadays are mediocre records. A good, different song stands out — that’s the kind of song you hope and wish for. I like the lyrics with a little different twist, with a little different story, just a different way you put it, because it’s hard to write about something new altogether that hasn’t been written about before.
“But the melody means an awful lot to me. I hate to hear some pretty lyrics or a good story — which I’ve heard a few and you might have too — that didn’t have a good melody. I’ve took [good lyrics] a lot of times and just put my own melody to them, and got an okay from the writer.
“I’m a melody lover,” he continues. “I think those real pretty melodies, if I get ahold of them, they make my voice more, I don’t know how to say it, sorta more powerful with soul feeling. You know what I mean? The sadder and prettier the melody is, the more I can put into it myself, give it just that little extra edge that you need.”
Jones spent the ’60s growing more successful, and more out of control. In 1962, Jones and Starday’s Daily left Mercury for United Artists; less than three years later, they moved again, this time to Musicor Records. George divorced his second wife late in the decade; not long after, he ran off with, and eventually married, a new country star named Tammy Wynette. As the decade progressed, he found he was so distracted that he couldn’t focus himself long enough to write songs very often. His drinking grew so bad that he began to miss shows, and when he recorded, he sometimes had to be held up by friends just to stand in front of the mike.
The hits kept coming, though the sounds of his recordings were growing as unpredictable as his personal life. His debut United Artists single, a classic ballad of self-deception called “She Thinks I Still Care”, topped the charts in a Nashville Sound setting that featured a backing choir and flourishes of Floyd Cramer-styled piano. “The Race Is On”, another top-five single, chugged along in a slick version of the Bakersfield sound. “We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds”, a duet with “the female George Jones,” Melba Montgomery, featured a plaintive dobro that sounded almost ancient by comparison.