George had become disillusioned with Pappy Daily’s business practices. His marriage to Tammy Wynette in 1969 encouraged him to make the momentous decision to move to her label Epic, and to co-opt her producer Billy Sherrill. George was forced to buy himself out of his Musicor contract, but it was money well spent, even though his chart record remained somewhat inconsistent. George’s move to Epic saw him at the peak of his vocal prowess, married to Billy Sherrill’s smooth, Nashville Sound production.
This superb compilation contains six of George’s last tracks for Musicor, and over 20 of the finest tracks he recorded in his first eight years on Epic. These were the years of his troubled marriage to and divorce from Tammy Wynette, and the years his intensifying battles with drugs and alcohol earned him the inglorious nickname ‘No Show Jones’ and saw his health break down, but in the studio George Jones was creating magic and leading up to what many will call his finest moment on record. Step Right Up mixes classic hits with some well-chosen lesser known album cuts. The material is almost uniformly great here, concentrating on the sad songs at which George Jones has always excelled. Vocally George does not put a foot wrong, although some aspects of the production, mainly the backing vocals, now sound a little dated. The only reason to debate whether this album is worth buying is whether you might not try to get hold of the constituent albums, at least some of which are available on CD reissues.
George’s first single of the 70s, as he approached the end of his time with Musicor, was ‘Where Grass Won’t Grow’, a bleak, echoey tale of rural poverty in Tennessee,
Trying to grow corn and cotton on ground so poor that grass won’t grow
culminating in the death of the protagonist’s wife, buried in that same soil. The song, written by George’s old friend and drinking partner Earl Montgomery, was perhaps too downbeat to chart higher than the lower reaches of the top 30, but its quality led it to become regarded as a classic Jones record.
The exquisite expression of emotional devastation in ‘A Good Year For The Roses’ (written by Jerry Chestnut) is one of George’s most masterly vocal performances, reaching #2 on Billboard.
A handful of less well-known late Musicor cuts are also included. The tender steel-laced ballad of love for the protagonist’s motherless child, ‘She’s Mine’, co-written by George with Jack Ripley, was a top 10 hit. Slightly less successful, peaking at #13, was a great Dallas Frazier/Sanger D Shafer composition ‘Tell Me My Lying Eyes Are Wrong’, in which George manfully tries to pretend everything’s alright and his wife isn’t cheating on him, unusually featuring the Jones Boys’ backing. Another Dallas Frazier song (this time with A L Owens), ‘She’s As Close As I Can Get To Loving You’, has another great lead vocal, but is marred by excessive Nashville Sound backing vocals. Wayne Kemp’s ballad ‘Image Of Me’ has the protagonist confessing his shame that he has “dragged down” a simple old-fashioned country girl and made her into a honky-tonk angel, with another very fine vocal performance. Earl Montgomery’s ‘Right Won’t Touch A Hand’, a passionate confession of regret for jealousy which destroyed a relationship, was yet another top 10 hit in 1971.
The Epic years kicked off with the upbeat committed love song ‘We Can Make It’, written by Sherrill with Glenn Sutton, as George declares love will keep them through the hard times, including the distinctly ironic (given his real life propensities),
I don’t need wine to keep me warm
Although not one of his best records, George’s first single for the label, the title track of his first Epic album, was a top 10 hit in 1972. Far better, but not a single was the same writers’ beautiful ‘I’ll Take You To My World’, with its tasteful string section supporting George’s subtle crooning, begging his ex who has been forced to work in a bar to come back home. It was in fact a variant with gender-adjusted lyrics of Tammy Wynette’s #1 hit from 1968, ‘Take Me To Your World’.
George got another top 5 hit with his sublime recording of the heartbroken ‘A Picture Of Me (Without You)’, written by George Richey (who was to succeed Jones as Tammy Wynette’s husband a few years later), and Norro Wilson. Surprisingly this classic peaked at #5 and was the only single released from the fine album of the same title (George’s second solo album for Epic). George also covered Freddy Weller’s contemporary hit ‘She Loves Me (Right Out Of My Mind)’, written by Weller with Muscle Shoals musician Spooner Oldham, a fine song about a passionate relationship with the kind of woman the protagonist would never want to marry.
George and Tammy’s relationship was ultimately derailed by his addictions. They wrote the rather poignant ‘Wine (You’ve Used Me Long Enough)’ together, and George recorded it in 1973 on his album Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half As Bad As Losing You); it has an underlying melancholy which perhaps indicates that he knew he could not yet live up to the message:
For the first time in my life I’m really proud of me
And without you I can be the way I wanna be
Yes you’vechanged and rearranged my life too much
I don’t love you anymore
I’ve had enough
I’m so proud to know I finally got control of me
And it’s good to know I’m on my feet and not down on my knees
The roads you’ve dragged me down were much too rough
Wine, you’ve used me long enough
Another old friend, Johnny Paycheck, wrote the romantic and magnanimous ‘Once You’ve Had The Best’, a #3 hit for George in 1973.
Shockingly few of George’s singles have ever hit #1, with just two solo records hitting the top in the 70s, and oddly enough they were back to back singles in the dying days of his marriage in 1974. ‘The Grand Tour’ (written by Richey and Wilson with Carmol Taylor) is one of the saddest songs ever written – especially as recorded by George, a chilling admission by a man brooding over his empty house and the loss (probably to death) of a beloved wife and their baby. Perhaps the biggest hit of the Epic years before ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ came along, it lends its opening words to the title of this compilation. It was followed by ‘The Door’, written by Sherrill and Wilson, which compares a man’s experience of the horrors of war (a rare reminder that the young George had served as a U.S. Marine although he never saw action) to the end of a marriage.
George and Tammy wrote his top 10 hit ‘These Days (I Barely Get By)’, another despairing lyric with slightly intrusive backing vocals but a soaring lead from George, about a man whose life is falling apart in every possible way, recorded just before their own marriage finally broke down irretrievably. The hopelessly defiant post-divorce ‘I Just Don’t Give A Damn’, which George wrote with Jimmy Peppers, as the protagonist finds temporary oblivion as he drinks away his pain at his lover’s leaving. This is a great, great record, belying its #92 peak.
The metaphor-laden ‘The Battle’, which likens a troubled marriage to war but allows a happy ending, written on Richey and Wilson with L Kimball, also faltered somewhat on the charts. It was a slight departure from George’s normal sound (and not one of my favorites), and failed to crack the top 10. He returned to the booze theme with the fascinating album cut ‘Wean Me’, another Tammy co-write, which ascribes his addiction to an inability to grow up, comparing his need for alcohol to an infant’s need for milk.
Even more bleakly honest is George’s own ‘A Drunk Can’t Be A Man’, written with Earl Montgomery. This trenchant third person depiction of someone rather like George himself, which seems in retrospect to be a cry for help, was one of the best tracks from his excellent Alone Again album in 1976, which benefits from some of Billy Sherrill’s most restrained production efforts:
He embarrasses his child and wife
He leads a miserable life
But still he thinks the bottle is his right hand
He can tear down more than he’s ever built before
A man can be a drunk sometimes
But a drunk can’t be a man…
Still he keeps on reaching out
But he needs a helping hand
The self-mocking heartbreak of ‘Stand On My Own Two Knees’, written by Roger Bowling and Jerry Crutchfield, comes from the same album and is another great performance. He revived a classic from the 40s in the form of Floyd Tillman’s ‘I Love You So Much It Hurts’ on his 1977 album I Wanta Sing, but great song though it is, George’s phrasing is weirdly reminiscent of Ernest Tubb, and I prefer the same record’s ‘Rest In Peace’, written by Sherrill and Richey, with George addressing his own broken heart as if were a deceased friend.
In 1977 he covered folk/pop singer-songwriter James Taylor’s ‘Bartender’s Blues’, with Taylor himself providing backing vocals. It was another top 10 hit, a peak just missed by Bob McDill’s ‘I’ll Just Take it Out In Love’, an average love song lifted by the tender vocal. A better choice might have been ‘Ain’t Your Memory Got No Pride At All’ (later covered by 90s star Doug Stone), an intense ballad about a man unable to get over memories of his ex even when kissing his new love.
Of the notable omissions, I would include the semi-novelty ‘Her Name Is’ as one of George’s biggest hits in the period, and one of my personal favorite obscure album tracks, ‘Billy Ray Wrote A Song’. On the whole, however, the selection here cannot be faulted. George’s duets with Tammy, a very significant part of his career in the 70s, are also missing, and we’ll be looking at those separately. However as the 70s drew to a close George embarked on one of the most notable projects of his career, a selection of duets with other artists, both fellow country stars and crossing genre boundaries, signalling in just what high esteem he was held by other artists. My Very Special Guests is represented here by a delicate duet with Emmylou Harris on Rodney Crowell’s ‘Here We Are’.
The closing track on this compilation is ‘Some Day My Day Will Come’, an understated expression of hope in the future. It failed to make the top 20 when it was released as a single in 1979, and the casual observer might have suggested that George’s career was winding down. Such a person could not have been more wrong, and the song, while not particularly memorable, was to prove prophetic in more ways than one, making it a fitting ending for this era:
Some day my day will come
When dreams become reality
I’ll be the one I want to be
Some day my day will come…
My castles won’t be made of sand
Some day my day will come
I’ll hold true love right in my hand
This compilation cannot be recommended too highly. If you aren’t familiar with George Jones’ music from this period, you should investigate it – and this Australian release from 2009 is the perfect starting point. Heartwrenchingly sad at times, George is arguably the greatest conveyor of emotion in all popular music.