Following his divorce from Tammy Wynette in 1975, George Jones went on an extended downward spiral, mostly propelled by cocaine and alcohol. Even though his albums continued to sell reasonably well and his singles consistently found their way to the upper reaches of the charts, and even though it was during this period that he recorded some of the best songs and performances of his storied career, George was in the tank personally. Missing more shows than he actually performed had earned him the nickname ‘No Show Jones’ – which he would later cash in on with a clever name-dropping tune of the same name – and many had counted George Jones out as a major force in commercial country ‘music. By the end of the 1970s, George would hit rock bottom personally, and would find himself serving a much-needed and well-publicized stint in rehab at a psychiatric hospital in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. What many didn’t know was that Jones’ next release would prove to be his milestone album. A cleaner, newly-detoxed Jones would emerge around the turn of the decade, and the resulting album he created with long-time producer Billy Sherrill would also ignite his career for the most commercially-successful period he’s ever enjoyed.
Leading it off with what many, including myself, consider to be one of the finest songs ever recorded in any genre of music, and filling the album out with a strong set of songs, performed to vocal perfection by the Possum, makes it not only his most commercially successful, but also one of the landmark recordings in the genre’s history.
Many music scholars and the best critics in the business have analyzed ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ as one of country music’s crowning achievements, and also one of our most startlingly desolate. ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ may have been the perfect marriage of song, singer, and production, but the story behind the recording is also very interesting. Producer Billy Sherrill sent the song back to songwriters Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam more than once to change the story in the lyrics. When all was said and done, the dark narrative about a lady attending the funeral of the man ‘who loved her til he died’ was thought to be too sad for radio by Jones himself, who bet his producer $100 the song wouldn’t be a hit. History proved Jones wrong, and the recording’s place in history would have sealed whether it became a #1 hit on the country singles chart or not.
Still proving George to be a viable hit-maker in the new decade, I Am What would surface with two more top-ten hits over the next year. During this time, the album was certified gold – the first George Jones studio album to do so – and also became his first platinum-seller after a couple more years on the shelves.
How do you follow a single release as epic as ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’? You do it with another classic, cry-your-heart-out country song. Jones found one that was more than up to the daunting task of follow-up with ‘I’m Not Ready Yet’, written by Tom T. Hall. ‘I’m Not Ready Yet’ would rest at #2 on the singles chart, and usually gets forgotten in discussions of this album, and this period in general of George Jones’ career. It had the unfortunate distinction of being sandwiched between two now-signature single releases, and while it does lack the clear-the-room punch the album’s other two singles have, it’s my decided pick among the three. Listen to it here to find out why.
‘If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)’ is still a staple of his live shows and one of his best-remembered hits. Here, he’s simply admitting the devastating effects heartbreak has had on both his body and his mind. It’s cold-opening and drawing melody make it a sing-along favorite too. Country radio was still warm to this kind of downtrodden drinking song in 1981, and it climbed to a #8 peak.
The excellent ‘I’ve Aged Twenty Years In Five’ tells of a man living in the fast lane, and feeling the effects of it by feeling as if he’s aging four-fold. Stark imagery and a propelling vocal sell the song to me, and it’s one I consistently come back to in my collection. The best part of the song is the redeeming few lines that come near the end, with the singer allowing a bit of self-prophecy to prove to be true, as he comes to the determined resolution:
I’ll climb back to the top
And with my friends I won’t stop
Till I erase twenty years in five
Another of my favorites is the slow-burning ‘Brother To The Blues’, which finds two kindred spirits, both lonely, looking to each other for a night’s comfort of familiarity and love-making. ‘You’re just a sister to satisfaction, and I’m just a brother to the blues’, Jones croons, settling any doubts that these two are any more than recurring flames with little, if any, romantic attachment to the other.
And while its greatest moments certainly come from the melancholy, I Am What I Am isn’t without a few up-tempo country shuffles, all stacked at the end of the disc and designed to set your toes tapping. ‘A Hard Act to Follow’ tells of a man and woman eyeing one another from across the room, with the singer making the proclamation ‘I’ve been badly needing bookings, and you’re the best contract I’ve known’.
A cover of Waylon Jennings’ ‘Good Hearted Woman’ finds George in fine voice, but is seriously lacking in direction when compared to Waylon’s stunning version. Album-closer ‘Bone Dry’ is telling given the circumstances surrounding the recording and it becomes more believable coming from someone in Jones’ shoes. The song wryly tells of a man going cold turkey from the booze.
In the wake of the success of I Am What I Am, Jones would come home with Male Vocalist of the Year trophies from both the CMA and ACM in 1980, repeating his victory at the CMA’s the next year. ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ would also garner him a Grammy, and was the first song ever to win consecutive Song of the Year honors from the CMA. That it was even eligible two consecutive years is a bit puzzling to me, and that it won twice is near astounding, even for a song of its caliber.
Looking back on it – and absorbing a handful of these songs for the first time – it’s not hard to hear why I Am What I Am became the milestone that it now is. It’s a really fine collection of country music from one of the masters. The lead-single might be the best-remembered and overshadow other songs worthy of as much praise. As any good album – or well, all of them in my opinion – should be, there’s certainly much more to be enjoyed here than what was sent to radio.
The original issue of I Am What I Am, on vinyl and CD format are available fairly reasonably from amazon, and other retailers. But a digital re-issue of the album from 2000 comes with 4 bonus tracks, and is a much better deal. And unless you’re truly nostalgic for the original 1980 release, I’d recommend the re-issue.
Note: As is always the case with our Spotlight Artists, this album review was scheduled chronologically in order – and was originally slated for a Monday posting. Circumstances delayed its posting, which is why it appears here out of order.