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George Jones For Dinner

7 Apr


GEORGE JONESI Am What I Am (Epic, 1980)

Last week I dreamt that George Jones and I were hanging out together in my kitchen. He looked exactly like he did in this sleeve pic: wide polyester lapels, bad Nashville haircut, crazy look in his eyes. He was showing interest in our back garden ferns, but all I could do was wonder who else still worked this sorta fashion in 1980 . . . retirees in Sun City, AZ? Cab drivers in Southeast Asia? Sheesh.

As much as I love every George Jones record I have heard, there is something a little ghoulish about this one. Inarguably, his life was at it’s absolute nadir then – a swirling cocktail of alcohol/cocaine abuse, mental illness, financial woe, and just plain fucking up. And it all threatened to capsize him here. This is the first time on record that you can really hear an alcohol thickness to his voice, which is saying something – he admitted in his biography to being drunk through most studio sessions he’d ever been in. So when George plumbs as deep as he does with these songs, you worry he might not find a way back up.

The tack producer Billy Sherrill took with the musical backing remains oblivious to all this. It’s tried and true 70’s countrypolitan: hillbilly fiddle and twangy gtr are relegated to barely-speaking roles, while piano, swelling strings, and wordless choruses lead the way toward crossover chart success. The only concessions to the new decade seems to be some effects on the pedal steel, and a striping away of the soft-focus, gauzy haze that once made George sound like he was crooning to you from beyond the clouds. Despite the sweetening, George the vocalist stands as clear, maybe clearer, than ever before.

Which is a problem, because clarity only intensifies the horror on parade. As great a performance as the infamous lead-in cut “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is, there are even darker places to visit before it’s over. Hearing George sing “with the blood from my body I could start my own still” on “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)” is pathetic and gut-wrenching, since not only does he sound like a vagrant wino – albeit one with an amazing voice – he was one at this point. Similarly, “I’ve Aged Twenty Years In Five” is as heartbreaking a life-down-the-toilet song as they come:

As I look in the mirror this morning
On some dirty old restroom wall
It took a while to realize it’s really me there inside
‘Cause I’ve aged twenty years in five

I suppose it’s not all grim – the final trio of songs are more energetic and try to be fun, though totally out of place given the context. The CD reissue, however, rectifies this by adding 4 bonus tracks cut from the same desperate cloth as what’s on the first side, thus bringing the emptiness full circle. So when he eventually asks “Am I Losing Your Memory Or Mine?” it’s apparent to everyone except George what’s gone.

To be sure, his singing here still bests that of any of his peers. Hell, he’s singing better than just about anyone else going at this point, like his life depended on it. But I can’t shake that voyeuristic feel of listening to a man tumbling headlong into the void. No, I don’t suspect I’ll be spinning this one too frequently, if only to afford ol’ George some measure of late-life dignity. Yet it is what it is: a truly powerful record of life at the bottom.


I don’t remember much else about the dream, other than George raised an eyebrow when I told him my parents used to live in Jasper, Texas, not far from where he grew up. Interestingly, he didn’t appear drunk at all – in fact, he looked downright sober. Happy, even.