(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
A recent George Jones CD release has become one of the more desirable Jones keepers in his canon of recordings. George Jones: The Complete United Artists Solo Singles contains 32 Jones singles. Both the A-sides and B-sides are included.
Remember those? The label would release what it thought would be the artist’s next hit. And since the format for singles releases was the 45 RPM record that was double-sided, there needed to be a song for the B-side. Occasionally, but not often, a savvy disc jockey would notice that the B-side also had hit potential and would play it. That was discouraged by the labels because they didn’t want an artist to be competing with himself. Even so, Jones would sometimes have success with both sides of a record.
These were the years of the George Jones of the bristling flat-top, when his hair was sticking up like a … well, like a hair brush. In 1962, he had just finished up a five-year run with Mercury Records and decided to jump to United Artists Records.
In leaving Mercury Records for United Artists, Jones made a dramatic career move. In those days of many record labels competing with each other, it did matter what an artist’s label home was. At UA, Jones had the best backing band in town. The so-called A-Team of studio musicians included guitarist Grady Martin, bassist Bob Moore, pianist Pig Robbins and drummer Buddy Harmon.
Jones began his recording career with the Texas label Starday Records in 1954 and moved on to Nashville’s Mercury Records, where he had the huge hit “White Lightning” in 1959. It was his first No. 1 hit and was followed by another, “Tender Years,” in 1961.
At UA, Jones notched only one No. 1 hit with “She Thinks I Still Care.” He came close with other releases. “The Race Is On” is now remembered as a smash hit for Jones, but it made it only to No. 3. The same was the case for the superb Jack Clement song “A Girl I Used to Know.” And his duet with Melba Montgomery on “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds” also made it to No. 3. Jones had already begun a lifetime tradition of recording duets — with men as well as with women — while still at Starday (with Jeanette Hicks) and at Mercury (with Margie Singleton).
There are some genuinely memorable, if bordering on bizarre, songs in his UA catalog. Jones was regularly tapping into his lifelong themes of sadness, grief, death and loss. One striking song is “The Old, Old House.” Some lyrics from it:
“There’s an old, old man who walks in the garden
And his head is bowed in memory
They say he built the mansion for the love of a woman
And they planned to be married in the fall
But her love withered in the last days of summer
And the house stands empty after all”
“Open Pit Mine” is in the tradition of the Appalachian love/betrayal/murder/suicide song. Some lyrics:
“Her love would bring heartbreak that I would soon learn
‘Cause she would two-time me when my back was turned
Rosey would go dancin’ and drink the red wine
While I worked like a slave in that open pit mine
“One night I caught Rosey on her rendezvous
She was huggin’ and kissin’ with somebody new
It was there that I shot ’em while their arms were entwined
Then I buried her deep in that open pit mine”
Then the narrator kills himself and joins Rosey in that open pit mine.
The very song title gives away the song with many of these: “My Tears Are Overdue,” “A Good Old Fashioned Cry,” “Big Fool of the Year,” “Where Does a Little Tear Come From” and “Sometimes You Just Can’t Win.”
But the words don’t tell the whole story. You need that classic haunting voice, caressing and coaxing and pulling all the aches and suffering from those songs.
His last UA single, in 1966, was “Best Guitar Picker,” which is one thing he never became in life.
Released in February, this new collection comprises 32 songs. Most of them are now obscure. They don’t deserve to be. Some of Jones’ finest singing (as well as writing) is featured here. These songs deserve to breathe again.