Today is St. George’s Day. Following on from Razor X’s great George Strait playlist, I’m taking a look at the ultimate country George: George Jones, and linking it to our look back at 1989.
George is rightly regarded by many fans as the greatest country singer of all time, with a rich, expressive voice capable of unfettered emotion. He can deliver a heartbreak ballad better than almost anyone. His career started in the 1950s, and although his voice has lost some of its power, he was still recording a couple of years ago. In 1989 he was coming to the end of his hitmaking career, although he still had a decade ahead releasing albums on a major label. Although country radio was open to traditional sounds at that time, they had already started to prefer younger faces as the video era kicked in.
The set gets off to a great start with a lively cover of the title track, a hit for Johnny Horton in the 1950s, with George showing the range of his voice from a low growl in the verse to a high hillbilly wail on the chorus. It was his first top 10 hit for a couple of years, reaching #5. Sadly, it was also his last ever top 10. This may be partly due to an unfortunate coincidence. The label had planned that the follow-up single would be another cover, Hank Cochran’s exquisite and much-recorded ‘Don’t You Ever Get Tired (Of Hurting Me)’. George’s version is, of course, superb, and certainly should have been a massive hit. Unfortunately for George, fellow-veteran Ronnie Milsap had hit on the same idea, and his version (also very fine) was released as a single before George’s label, Epic, had the chance to send his to radio. The song went to #1 on Billboard for Ronnie.
Two more classic yearning ballads get the Jones treatment – his version of the gorgeous ‘Just Out Of Reach’, which should perhaps have been the label’s choice of a replacement single, is just sublime. The Louvin Brothers’ hit ‘My Baby’s Gone’ is also well-performed, although in this instance I still prefer the original.
George has never been afraid of the odd novelty song, and it was that side of his talent which the label decided to showcase instead, by releasing the entertaining ‘The King Is Gone (So Are You)’. This song may be more familiar under its original title ‘Ya Ba Da Ba Do’ — it had to be changed when the Hanna Barbera rights holders objected to the use of the trademarked catchphrase from the Flintstones in the title. It is still a tale of lost love and drinking one’s troubles away, as the protagonist mournfully drinks whiskey he has emptied from a decanter in the shape of Elvis into a Fred Flintstone jellybean jar, and, when sufficiently tanked, chats away with the pair of them: “Elvis said, ‘I like them young’, Fred said, ‘Old fashioned girls are fun’”. Radio was not quite sure what to make of the song, and it was only a minor hit. Equally quirky is the album’s closing track, ‘Pretty Little Lady From Beaumont, Texas’, as George pays court to an oil heiress. It’s a little kinder-hearted than Trace Adkins’ recent ‘Marry For Money’, but the basic spirit is much the same.
Two of the tracks, ‘Radio Lover’ and the subdued ballad ‘Burning Bridges’ had been included on George’s 1983 release Jones Country. The label probably felt that they had been undeservedly overlooked, but the committed fan must have felt shortchanged by their inclusion on One Woman Man, even though both are excellent songs. ‘Radio Lover’, the part-spoken, brooding tale of a radio DJ unaware his wife is cheating on him, culminating in murder when he comes home unexpectedly, was the final single from the album, but it was apparently too dark a theme for country radio — or perhaps it felt too close to home.
The dramatic tale of a man who foolishly leaves his wife and children in ‘Writing On The Wall’ was only a little more successful, stalling just outside the top 30 despite a great vocal performance as George’s voice swells in the big chorus on the protagonist’s return to his abandoned and now empty home: “it said we love you, Daddy, most of all, there in purple crayon scribbled knee-high in the hall, I saw the writing on the wall“. There is more tragic drama in the intense ‘A Place Out In The Country’ as a man struggles his whole life dreaming of the eponymous place in the country — but in the end finds it in a graveyard. The greatness of George Jones as an interpreter rests partly in the way he underplays the melodrama, never oversinging.
Longterm producer Billy Sherrill offers a restrained, solidly country production. George was at the height of his vocal prowess when this album was recorded, and the quality of the material (repeated songs notwithstanding) make this one of his best releases.
The album is currently available digitally.