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R.I.P. George Jones

I first heard of George Jones when I picked up Elvis Costello's "Almost Blue" album in 1981. This album was sort of my entry point to the world of honky tonk music. Many of the artists that EC covered on "Almost Blue"ended up having a profound effect on me: Hag, Gram Parsons, The Flying Burritto Brothers, Hank Williams, and, of course, the Possum, as George was fondly called.

I didn't, however, really get into George Jones until ten years or so later when I found myself driving around a lot in a strange triangle that encompassed California, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Back then cassettes were still in vogue and there were no shortage of titles by George Jones in the truck stops and rest stops along my route. I remember popping in the first GJ cassette I purchased (entitled "She Thinks I Still Care") and being stunned by THE VOICE. Yes, George Jones, as many have noted since his recent passing, was the greatest country singer of all time and, perhaps,the greatest singer of all time in any genre. He had a unique ability to sing both low smoky notes and high keening ones and invest everything he sang with real passion. The cassettes I bought had great songs but filler too. It didn't matter. When George sang corny stuff, it didn't sound corny. It sounded soulful.

When I finally landed in Pennsylvania for good, I was hooked and set about finding as many George Jones lps as I could find. There was no shortage in the bins at such late lamented record stores as Plastic Fantastic in Ardmore. I also remember Val Shively in Upper Darby letting me rout around in his basement. There were some great GJ finds down there. Thanks, Val!

George was a singles artist, really. I collected the full albums but the key to full-on Possum worship is finding the one or two masterpieces on each record. While some of his up-tempo material is worth hearing, it's the ballads, the WEEPERS, that kill. What follows are ten of my favorite George Jones' songs. I like all the periods of his career but am especially fond of the sides he cut with Billy Sherill in the 70s and early 80s. Some people say that Sherill ruined the Possum's hillbilly authenticity. But I think that the urbane vocal and string arrangements that Sherill is known (and sometimes reviled) for actually serve Jones very well: it's the tension between Sherill's syrup and Jones' rural timbre that gives this period its emotional depth. If there's a deeper blues to be heard, I'm yet to encounter it.

Anyway, a few years back, Jodi and I finally caught up George at a music hall in Lancaster. The fact that they were projecting pictures of sausage (Possum links or something like that!) on a screen behind him as he sang somehow did not diminish the effect of his voice. THE VOICE. I am grateful that I got to see hear him in person. No Show Jones, he was sometimes called. But he did show and he did deliver.

Jim Lauderdale called George Jones "the king of broken hearts." He was. And still is. Goodbye, Possum.

1. I Still Sing the Old Songs (from "The Battle" lp): This Billy Sherill produced album from the 70s is one that is actually worth hearing in its entirety. This track is the last one. David Allan Coe wrote it. The Possum wasn't nearly the outsider that DAC was and remains, but he definitely shared a certain defiance with him that comes out in this song.

2. Bartender's Blues (from "My Very Special Guests" lp): Yep, the James Taylor song. JT even harmonizes with the Possum on this track, again produced by Billy Sherill. The ultimate closing time song for those who pour our drinks.

3. Golden Ring (title track from duet album with Tammy Wynette): The Possum's marriage to Tammy didn't work out but they made some beautiful music together. He did duets with Melba Montgomery as well but I prefer the ones with Tammy.

4. Why Baby Why (included in "Cup of Loneliness" 2cd set): George's first hit and one of the only non-weepers included in this list. The "Cup of Loneliness" compilation is a good place to start if you're interested in the raw side of George i.e. before the Countrypolitan sound took over.

5. Just One More (included in "Cup of Loneliness" 2cd set): George sang for the broken hearted. But he also sang for those underneath the bottle. On this one, he croons that he'll have "just one more and then another." A lyric that neatly encapsulates addiction itself.

6. I'm Ragged but I'm Right (included in "Cup of Loneliness" 2cd set): Another non-weeper. More like a statement of purpose.

7. You Comb Her Hair (included on "Best of '55-67): This is one of the songs I heard on the truck-stop cassettes. It was included in John Train's earliest repertoire and we play it to this day.

8. A Picture of Me Without You (title track from another Billy Sherill production): the ultimate weeper. And, perhaps, my favorite song George did with Billy at the helm.

9. A Good Year for the Roses (included on "The Great Lost Hits" 2cd set): EC tried this one but George owned it. In general, however great the singer (Emmylou Harris, Gram Parsons, Costello etc), their version of songs associated with the Possum fail by comparison.

10. A Drunk Can't Be A Man (from "Alone Again" lp): The title of this song says it all. Until -- to borrow a line from Dave Marsh -- Jones begins to sing!

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