George Jones,
The Great Lost Hits
(Time Life, 2010)

Between 1965 and 1971, when he was signed to the Musicor label, George Jones recorded -- let us be clear: this is saying something -- some of the most accomplished and memorable records of his career. Unless you have the right long-in-the-tooth country LPs still resident in your collection, you are unlikely to have heard them in the original. You may, however, recognize some from covers by Emmylou Harris ("Feeling Single, Drinking Double," "Beneath Still Waters"), John Prine ("Milwaukee, Here I Come," "We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds'), Patty Loveless ("If My Heart Had Windows") and others.

In later years, Jones occasionally revisited material from this period, perhaps most successfully in a duet treatment with Keith Richards of Dallas Frazier's "Say It's Not You" and another with Alan Jackson of Jerry Chesnut's "A Good Year for the Roses" (both on the 1994 Bradley Barn Sessions, worth looking up). These two are songs retrieved from the shadowiest corner of the dark end of the street. No one matches Jones in making unforgettable beauty out of raw, soul-rattling pain. Or, for that matter, out of dread-soaked romantic fatalism; "She's Mine" (a Jones co-write with Jack Ripley) is the antithesis of a standard-issue love song.

As is instantly apparent, Jones was in a peak vocal form -- which puts him on a high mountain indeed -- when he cut these tunes. Not only that, the mostly uncluttered, unsweetened production bordered on perfection, in an era when Jones had access to some of the top hillbilly compositions and composers (including Frazier, Chesnut, Leon Payne, Loretta Lynn and Earl "Peanut" Montgomery). Owing to bitterly fought legal issues, these recordings have not made it onto CD till now. Music of this quality -- one may pronounce with full confidence that country music gets no better than this -- would sound mighty fine at any time, but maybe the long wait for its (re)appearance adds something to its luster.

Obviously, not everything Jones recorded in those six years (more than 250 songs) was a gem, but everything on The Great Lost Hits is. The astutely picked 34 cuts on two discs -- reasonably priced, I might note -- represent Jones in all his variety, not just as a heartbroken honkytonker but as a comic ("Love Bug," "I'm a People"), faithful lover ("Walk Through This World With Me," "I'll Share My World With You"), Christian ("Old Brush Arbors") and folk balladeer ("Where Grass Won't Grow," "Small Time Laboring Man").

Some of these songs were hits. Others were B sides or album cuts. However well they did or did not do in the marketplace, the songs are consistently strong. How, by the way, could "Your Angel Steps Out of Heaven" -- later covered by the Flying Burrito Brothers and Elvis Costello -- not even have charted when it was issued as a single in 1968?

Questions like that have a customary answer: "There's no justice in this world." But at least in this instance, that's not so. Justice is having access, at last, to this extraordinary music. Joy, too.

review by
Jerome Clark

24 April 2010

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