Released in February 2010, The Great Lost Hits chronicles George Jones’ years as a recording artist for the Musicor label, from 1965 to 1972. Jones had been recording for the United Artist label since 1962, and Musicor was launched as a division of the UA operation. Before his Epic years – the label that took his career to new heights and where Jones recorded for nearly 2 decades – George Jones recorded some of his best-loved hits, and truly developed the vocal style he would become renowned for and that would inspire countless other country singers that have come along since. Listening to this collection, you can almost hear that legendary singing style come to life, and hear some mighty fine country songs, from arguably the genre’s greatest voice, in the process.
This two-disc collection is a wonderful snapshot into the catalog and career of George Jones up to 1972. By that point, he was already a long-time country star, having spent nearly two decades honing his craft. The selections here range from silly to stone-country, from devastating to rib-tickling, and back again. Most are given very traditional arrangements, complete with crying fiddles, rolling steel guitars, and weeping vocals. But in a bit of foreshadowing to the layered production of the Billy Sherrill years ahead, we can also hear Jones changing over to the Nashville Sound of the time, apparently willing to adapt his sound accordingly to change with the times.
‘Four-O Thirty-Three’ is a bouncy number that references the house number where the narrator and his little lady have built a happy home. The acoustic guitar-laden tune found its way to the top 5 in late 1966. ‘Milwaukee, Here I Come’, another top 20 hit, is a jaunty duet with Brenda Carter. The pair sing of a man leaving Nashville, heading back to the beer-making capital. He’s fed up with having to compete with all the Opry stars around town for his lady’s affections.
That’s not to say that all the up-tempo tunes are as enjoyable. ‘I’m A People’, which was released as a single and managed to reach the top 10, resting at #6 sounds very out of place, and stands as a blemish in Jones’ catalog. Aside from the unsettling vocal from Jones, which often sounds like its one key too high and features shiftless ‘shoobie doobie doh’s’ in the chorus, the lyric to this novelty tune is very strange. George sings here of how he longs to be a monkey in a zoo. I’ve often fantasized about casting away all my responsibilities too, but I always remained human in my dreams, or at the very least, uncaged.
And The Great Lost Hits isn’t without its adult, sometimes dark, themes that once defined country music. Dallas Frazier’s ‘Say It’s Not You’ is the tale about a man questioning his woman’s faithfulness after overhearing rumors of an affair, and upon hearing his wife’s name, he breaks down and cries, apparently already knowing the truth. The title track to Jones’ 1969 Musicor album, ‘Where Grass Won’t Grow’ is one of my favorites from the collection. A simple, lone guitar opens the song with George’s captivating baritone leading the way. With that voice, he tells us of a share-cropping family, living through the hard times the winter will bring and then the death of his beloved wife, with everything happening on ‘ground so poor that grass won’t grow’. More layers are added to the song as it progresses, but simplicity defines the track more than anything else, and that allows the story to come to life.
‘I Can’t Get There From Here’ tells of a man’s hopeless thinking that he’ll never get over his devastating heartbreak, while ‘As Long As I Live’ is a profession of true and undying love. Both of these tracks are examples of George’s embracing the then-current Nashville Sound, as prominent backing vocalists accompany him throughout the melodic choruses, and layers of production complete the arrangements.
‘If Not For You’ is another love song, this time fitting into the ‘thanks for standing by me through the hard times’ category. The rolling steel guitar and barroom melody give it a vintage country sound, and Jones’ vocal is drenched with the drawls and sweeps that make him the greatest singer in country music. Another excellent example of Jones creating the vocal style that has influenced generations of others, and also from the pen of Dallas Frazier, can be found on ‘Tell Me My Lying Eyes Are Wrong’. Here, he takes an okay song, and elevates it to a near masterpiece with his uncanny knack for phrasing. Likewise, ‘Things Have Gone To Pieces’ is the kind of timeless treasure most artists only dream of adding to their catalogs. For George Jones, it’s just another brilliantly performed, oft-forgotten top 10 hit. ‘Pieces’ first appeared on a Musicor compilation, featuring songs by Jones and Gene Pitney, and went unreleased on CD until The Great Lost Hits was issued in February.
George Jones, the songwriter, is represented on a couple of tunes in this collection as well. His own ‘Take Me’ is given its first reading here. It would later be re-recorded as a duet with Tammy Wynette, and would serve as their first single release as a duo. Jones also co-wrote two more songs on The Great Lost Hits, and the collection features his recording of the Tammy-Wynette-penned ‘Never Grow Cold’. The gospel-tinged number also features Tammy on harmony.
When she was first starting out on MCA, Patty Loveless recorded and released ‘If My Heart Had Windows’ and had her first top 10 hit with the song. So, in addition to being the primary influence on her own vocal style, Patty Loveless often credits George Jones with giving her her first hit. Jones’ own take on ‘Windows’ is slightly less punchy than Loveless’, but both are essential listening for me.
‘Walk Through This World With Me’, George’s biggest hit and only chart-topper for the label, features a memorable guitar lick, and the swaying chorus adds to the romance of the lyric. For many years, even after he hit it big himself, Alan Jackson featured ‘A Good Year For The Roses’ in his live show. Listening to Jones’ despairing original recording, it’s not hard to hear why Jackson thought so highly of it. The man is so deep in his grief after his wife of 3 years left that all he really notices is how great the season has been to the roses in the garden. It’s the kind of clear and cutting observation that only country music can make, and another classic song in the genre’s history.
On The Great Lost Hits, fans can hear George Jones continue to transform himself from 1950s honky-tonker and rockabilly to a smooth country-politan crooner. Along the way, Jones developed a style of singing that would come to define country music, and influenced generations of hopefuls and talented youngsters with dreams of Music City. It’s really tricky to regard any one period in a career as lengthy and celebrated as Jones’ as key or as the artistic high point, but if pressed, I’d have to say his years at Musicor are key. That’s because it’s during this period I can hear him transforming into the serious artist and vocalist so revered, but also because the material on this set is so very worthy of his immense vocal talents.
The Great Lost Hits is readily available at amazon, and many other retailers. It also comes highly recommended to all music fans.