The legend of George Jones looms high over his career. But despite the epic battlefields of his marriage to Tammy Wynette and the tumultuous whiskey and cocaine fuelled years, ultimately, it was his voice that gave him legendary status.
Equal parts chocolate and bourbon, it flowed over and round you, lulling you into accepting the brutal emotional truths it was carrying.
More than any other popular singer, Jones had the ability to sink so far into a song that it never seemed to be a performance at all, just the sound of a man falling apart in front of you.
That's a bit more myth making of course, because the Possum was just as capable of recording a daft novelty song or a foot-stomping slab of honky-tonk. But it was the sad songs that stuck. There, you'll hear, lives honestly reflected in a way that's rare in art of any sort, let alone in popular music.
Here is Holler's list of the best George Jones songs.
Jones had recorded rockabilly before, hiding behind the name Thumper Jones, but it didn’t go well.
“I was desperate. When you're hungry, a poor man with a house full of kids, you're gonna do some things you ordinarily wouldn't do. I said, 'Well, hell, I'll try anything once. I didn't want my name on the rock and roll thing, so I told them to put Thumper Jones on it and if it did something good, if it didn't, hell, I didn't want to be shamed with it."
Ironically, when he stopped trying it came good, and this 1959 classic turned out to be his first no.1. Starting as he clearly meant to go on, a sozzled George took over 80 takes to get this one right, only for the producer to use the first one despite the singer being unable to pronounce the word “slug”, a mistake he spent the next 50 years replicating every time he did the song live.
And 5 years later, another rockabilly romp produced George’s only mainstream Top 40 hit - a hit in the UK for Dave Edmunds and the Stray Cats, of course.
Tammy Wynette was a huge presence in Jones’ life - they married in 1969 and divorced in 1976 but kept working together until her death in 1998.
This was their first joint chart-topper, its easy familiarity belied by the tremendous difficulty of its recording. Wynette could not cope with George’s habit of never singing a song the same way twice.
“He could make a five syllable word out of ‘church’”, recalled producer Billy Sherrill. So Wynette requested he record his vocal first so she could follow him.
From April 1962, the song that not only gave George his biggest hit up to that point, but also the one that solidified his bruised and battered image in the public mind.
Brought to him by Cowboy Jack Clement, one of country music’s secret heroes, Jones initially dismissed the song, only coming round after being bribed with the gift of a tape recorder.
Like a lot of classic country music stars, Jones’ albums are wildly inconsistent, often no more than two hit singles with eight other songs to make up the playing time. But there are exceptions, and 1999’s ‘Cold Hard Truth’ is one of them.
Three months before it came out, George was involved in a DUI incident near his home, and it proved a turning point. He gave up smoking and drinking and the newly invigorated Possum turned in a masterful set of performances, including this title track.
Now best known in the version by Chris Stapleton, the Jones take is from 1983’s Shine On, and is the mid-point between the Stapleton blues version and the original, more traditional 1981 version by David Allan Coe.
The title track from the first of two almost embarrassingly painful post-Tammy albums released in 1976, this extended marital metaphor gets even more coruscating when you realise it was written by George Richey, who went on to marry Wynette two years later.
Richey wrote this one too; a 1974 classic that pulled Jones out of an 8-year commercial slump and gave him a solo no.1 to match his wife’s. It brought with it a critical reception that likened it to the best of Frank Sinatra’s unimpeachable 50s run.
Back with Tammy in 1980 for the first full album since their divorce, and a successful return to the house metaphor.
Partially written by Wynette herself, it was the high spot of an era which George later confessed he hated, and in which Billy Sherrill described both participants as “wounded animals”.
A rare George & Tammy co-write, the couple recorded this on December 11th 1974. Two days later their marriage was over.
In one of country music’s great ironies, George & Tammy’s duets became much more commercially successful after their divorce, and they could never really shake each other off.
This was their second no.1 in August of 1976 alone. Writer Billy Braddock conceived the idea after seeing a TV show about the life cycle of a hand gun and the people whose lives it touched.
Another from Cold Hard Truth and the one that brought George the Male Country Vocal Grammy in 2000. It also brought controversy at the 1999 CMA Awards when Jones declined to sing a shortened version and Alan Jackson broke away from his scheduled track to perform it instead.
A long-time favourite of Leonard Cohen, it was the one he sang in tribute after Jones’ death in 2013.
The bars along Nashville's Lower Broadway will be filled with people tonight. They'll be dancing in Robert's Western World, in Layla's Bluegrass Inn, in Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, and they'll drink and they'll fight and they'll make up and some of them will wake up in the morning with their heads resting on their steering wheels.
And across the road, in the dark, George Jones is in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Still the best-known Jones song to a non-country audience thanks to Elvis Costello’s groundbreaking 1981 cover, this 1970 original remains George’s greatest ever vocal.
Well, except for this one…
A song about which entire books could - and have - been published. It is so often cited as the best country song ever written that it's hiding in plain sight. Jones' vocal is a simply astonishing tour de force of empathic emotion that has never been surpassed. Or even equalled.
Yes, it’s corny in that Music Row way, but give yourself up to it and it’ll never not make you cry. It’ll take you out of yourself and deliver you back not quite the same person as you were before, which is art in anybody’s book.
Listen and subscribe to Holler's The Best George Jones Songs playlist below: