George Jones, with his honeyed, heartbroken tenor croon, is quite possibly the best vocalist in the history of country music. Despite legendary problems with cocaine and alcohol, culminating in his recent crash into a bridge while driving drunk, Jones has managed to have a near 50-year career, which, not surprisingly, has been exceedingly sloppy, riddled with half-assed performances and poor song selection. But still, if you care at all about the genre, you should have some kind of comprehensive best-of of his recordings in your collection, because when he’s at his best, it simply doesn’t get any better.
Jones is justly known for his balladry, especially the amazing series of Billy Sherrill-produced duets chronicling his stormy ‘70s relationship with Tammy Wynette (“Golden Ring”, “We’re Gonna Hold On”, “The Grand Tour”), which are so maudlin, they come through the other side of ludicrousness to be irresistibly moving. A true natural, Jones exudes authenticity and sincerity; he conveys emotion automatically, without his ever resorting to histrionics. Just consult his rendering of “A Good Year for the Roses”, from his mid-‘60s years with Musicor, for a textbook in powerful, sensitive vocal delivery. And if you’ve heard his duet with Melba Montgomery, “We Must Have Been out of Our Minds”, then you know the extent of what regret can sound like.
Now, the “definitive collection” under consideration here contains none of that material. This disc features only songs he recorded for Mercury, when Jones was still primarily a rambunctious, honky-tonkin’ Hank Williams devotee. While it’s not padded with filler the way some other compilations hamstrung by licensing-rights issues can be, it still gives a slightly distorted picture of Jones’s work and doesn’t supply you with everything you’ll want to have if you’re only planning to buying one Jones hits package (You’d want Epic’s two-disc The Essential George Jones,). And it’s not even definitive for that period: That would be 1994’s Cup of Loneliness, which has 48 songs as opposed to the 22 here.
Not there’s anything wrong with these 22. Each is still a revelation, if you never heard Jones before, whether he’s doing Hank or Lefty Frizzell knockoffs (“Why Baby Why”, “I’m Ragged But I’m Right”), novelty tunes (“White Lightning” and its obligatory soundalike, “Who Shot Sam”), gospel hymns (“Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and the absolutely stunning “Cup of Loneliness”), wrenching torch songs (“You’re Still on My Mind”, which the Gram Parsons later covered on the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, “Achin’ Breakin’ Heart”), or even a prison tune (“Life to Go”). He can take unpromising material like “If I Don’t Love You (Grits Ain’t Groceries)” and redeem it, and he can take a solid simple tune like “Tender Years” and squeeze more out of it than you could have previously imagined. He can take an idiotic line like “Blue must be the color of the blues” and make it the most brilliant and profound thing you’ve ever heard. The last song included here, “She Thinks I Still Care”, finds him stretching his voice a bit, hinting at the phrasings he would bring to his anguished hits to come.
While the production on most of these tracks is suitably bare-boned—you don’t want anything interfering with Jones’s voice—a few are cursed with an unnecessary and distracting backing choir. But other than that, the arrangements are exemplary of the classic country sound, the kind you pick up on AM radio stations cruising through Oklahoma or West Texas. The fiddle and the lap steel take turns playing the main melody while the piano player vamps over a steady shuffle beat, and everyone is so comfortable in their chops that they don’t need more than a few bars to break your heart with a perfectly poignant solo. Because the arrangements are so quintessential, all these songs feel immediately familiar, its inevitable, elemental, but nevertheless this is the kind of disc that you can and should play over and over again, letting it wash away the memories of the mediocre music that assaults us from all around, until it’s as amazing and unremarkable as rain washing over the streets.