What do I mean by 'The Last Country Star,' you ask? I mean, nothing. It's just one of those stupid titles you give things because it sounds important and definitive. Try it for dinner. 'Hot Dogs -- The Last Supper!' Or for breakfast. 'Jolt Cola -- The Final Drink!'
Fact is, George Jones is one of the very few musicians you can wing superlatives at and never overstate your case. His early manager and "producer" Pappy Daily sent him into the recording studio the way young parents send their kids into the bathroom. If Jones wasn't in the studio making hits, he was out on the road telling everyone about what he just did.
While this meant the quality of his records were hit and miss, it also ensured that he was never out of the public eye for very long. In an age when musicians take years to make a single 11-track album, Jones recorded 151 tracks in two years at United Artists in 1962-64 and then went to Musicor Records where he recorded nearly double that in seven more.
This list is obviously barely a single drop in a bucket that overfloweth! While I'm sure most of you would love to read a list of the 419 best George Jones songs, the hip-to-be-square dark overlords that run things around here think that would be a mite excessive.
As someone who compromises for a living, I offer you just 25 songs that represent 'The Greatest Country Singer Who Ever Lived.' And that is no meaningless phrase. That one's for real.
25) Small Time Laboring Man: OK, the absurdity of putting these songs in an order is already evident. Number 25 is as great as every other song on this list. Critics say the Musicor years had a lot of filler but if it takes a ton of filler to get to this tune that Bob Dylan singled out as a great work, well, that's the price you pay. Actually, the price you pay is to Bear Family who put out exquisite box sets that serious Jones fans dream about and purchase when that home equity loan comes through.
24) When The Grass Grows Over Me: Everyone knows Jones loved his lawnmower and rode it to town when necessary, so it would figure that he has several songs about legal grass.
23) Walls Can Fall: The album came out in 1992 and proved Jones still had plenty of notes left to bend.
22) We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds (With Melba Montgomery): Everyone knows of the duets with his once-upon wife Tammy Wynette, but Jones was often paired with other singers, long before the tributes began and they wheeled in anyone they could find. Just be glad we never had to sit through an album of alternative guests. Nick Cave is just fine on his own. He doesn't belong on a George Jones album and neither does anyone from Sonic Youth, no matter how "influenced" they were by country music.
21) We're Gonna Hold On (with Tammy Wynette): As much as I love both of these singers and get why people would be attracted to hearing them live out their tumultuous relationship on record, I still prefer Jones and Tammy on their own. Heresy, perhaps, but if more of the duets sounded like this one, I'd be more of a believer. Or maybe I just think Jones is a natural loner who's best when he's stewing in his own bar-b-q sauce.
20) Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town: Mel Tillis wrote it. Kenny Rogers and the First Edition made it a hit. And chances are it was just another song for George to sing to fulfill what he could of an onerous contract with Pappy Daily, but give Jones a great melody and nothing else really matters.
19) I Can't Get There From Here: Great singers don't just sing notes, they phrase in ways that make the songs their own. Other people may sing the songs but they either imitate their heroes or they leave the songs slightly flat. Only a handful of singers put such a stamp on the material that it's impossible to get it off.
18) Frozen Heart: Here's another early recording where the primitive nature of the production makes a major difference in how the song is perceived. There's a rushed urgency here that modern record producers try to mimic with their own over-compression of sound. Except that the band in question has to already be good. You can't fabricate real talent and intensity.
17) You Couldn't Get The Picture: You'd never think a song with the words "Post-It Notes" in it could devastate a listener the way this one does.
16) Color of the Blues: The early days have a Starday/Mercury version that will break your heart and there's a Musicor version that's slower and sad in its own way. There's a blue note in this song that every real singer spends their career trying to find so they can attempt to unlock it and set it free. Quick! Grab that note before it gets away!
15) She Thinks I Still Care: This is one of those songs where you just wish you could've been there every time he sang it. And especially on the nights when he meant it the most.
14) Things Have Gone To Pieces: Three nickels and a dime! It was probably a good idea to never ask George how he was doing or for money!
13) The Race Is On: Though he found that ballads were his forte -- especially as he got older -- he could honky-tonk as well as anyone. I've no idea how many times he recorded this song -- and live versions just throw the number into infinity -- but I've never had a bad version.
12) Tender Years: This is what I mean by 'ballads were his forte.' If this doesn't make you stop what you're doing, you don't like country music and should stick to playing with your computer and making random noises with your synthesizers and guitar pedals.
11) The Window Up Above: Jones re-recorded his hits many times over. And since I'm part of the "New Honesty" movement (please join!), I have to admit that I actually love the Epic re-recordings of many of his old hits as much as the original versions. Jones' voice is deeper and the way he uses his breathing to turn on a note is just beyond sublime. Seriously, singing is breathing! Or maybe that's breathing is singing.
10) I'll Share My World With You: It's all in the way he sings "let me give you the sunshine."
9) Walk Through This World With Me: Another fine example of the way in the 1970s Jones uses his breathing to break your heart. Just listen to the re-recorded version on "All-Time Greatest Hits, Vol. 1" (it has Jones sitting on a chair in a polyester leisure suit with a jukebox behind him) and the way the word "so" just seems to catch him off-guard.
8) Don't Stop The Music: There's a 2-CD set "Cup of Loneliness: The Classic Mercury Years" that includes so many great songs that it's hard to listen to just a few tracks without hearing them all. Ten minutes turns into two hours. Your day is shot!
7) Just One More: Ol' "No Show" knew his demons from the very beginning and if he wasn't ready to concede these songs were all about him this early in the game, he still sang them as if his life depended on them.
6) Out of Control: One more time! Ol' "No Show" knew his demons from the very beginning and if he wasn't ready to concede these songs were him this early in the game, he still sang them as is his life depended on them.
5) Cup of Loneliness: There are certain recordings where the sound of the record just takes you somewhere else. Jones recorded plenty of great songs in his career but there's something about the sound of this song, the way his voice opens up in ways that are impossible to explain, that makes this just a bit better than others that come close. (You're looking for the version from the Mercury Years, kids.)
4) These Days (I Barely Get By): Kids always like to think only their music expresses their ennui. What could older people know about the passions of youth? What was music before EMO?
3) A Picture of Me (Without You): Great country songwriting is a difficult skill. You have to be clever without being too clever, heart-tugging without getting too sentimental, and honest and to-the-point without being obvious and dumb. Few songs are as clever and as great as this one.
2) A Good Year For the Roses: Hearing an alternate take of this song shows the difference between a very good performance and a transcendent one. Mortals would think the early take was good enough. It's not like you have the official version to compare it to. But Jones went back, tweaked it and the heavens opened, hell rumbled and he went on to the next song. Time is money, boys.
1) He Stopped Loving Her Today: Everyone knows him for this song and it's definitely one that leads to a room full of crying fans, so I'm contractually obligated to put this one at #1. Not that I have a problem with that. Sometimes you just go with the flow and the flow takes you where you want to be.