By Kurt Wolff
When George Jones passed away last April, the music world lost one of its greatest voices. But it wasn’t just pure vocal chops that earned Jones his place as one of popular music’s most legendary performers — it was also his innate ability to choose meaningful songs and take them to places only he could know. Some were silly (“Root Beer,” anyone?), many were deeply sad, but all the great ones reached deep into a place in your soul and shook you from your core.
Everyone knows Jones for the song that became his signature, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” And it is a powerful song that never loses its emotional grip no matter how many times you spin it. But Jones’ career reaches back decades, and he has hundreds, even thousands of fantastic songs in his catalog just waiting for rediscovery.
Tonight (Nov. 22), thousands of fans and musicians (more than 100 are scheduled to perform) will descend on Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena for a long-sold-out George Jones tribute concert. So it seems fitting to pay tribute to ‘The Possum’ by assembling a list of Jones’ most epic songs from throughout his career. Every fan will have their personal favorites, but we stand behind our list below of ten George Jones songs that every music fan should know (note that all are solo recordings, not duets). Consider it a great starting point in exploring his career.
10. “Cup of Loneliness”
Mad Men fans will remember that this scorching gospel song showed up in the end credits in season 2, episode 12. It was among Jones’ earliest recordings, released during the 1950s. Jones cowrote the song, and he unleashes the words with such force that they turn from celebration into something with far more depth and edged in bitterness.
9. “She Thinks I Still Care”
Dickey Lee and Steve Duffy wrote this song, which gave Jones his third No. 1 hit in 1962 (it topped the charts for an impressive six weeks). The video above (from 1962) is a great early version of this song, from 1962. Jones’ voice didn’t have the rich, buttery characteristics it would take on a decade later, but the sparseness here feels just as devastating. And the intensity in his eyes…whoa.
8. “White Lightning”
A good-natured song about some rough and rowdy moonshine, “White Lightning” topped the charts in 1959 and became the Possum’s first No. 1 hit. It was written by the Big Bopper, who sadly died just before Jones cut the song. It’s one of Jones’ goofier songs, though it’s sharp, strong and still packs a punch.
7. “The Window Up Above”
This Mercury single from 1960 marks a turn from George’s honky-tonk period into one that embraced slower, lusher arrangements (including background vocals) and more emotionally tumultuous material. In this case, the singer is watching out the window as his love life falls apart below — and as with Jones’ best songs, we feel his pain as if it were our own.
6. “Loving You Could Never Be Better”
As much as Jones is known for his honky-tonkers and hardcore weepers, he’s also released some powerful love songs. This one came in 1972, just after he’d signed with Epic and begun working with producer Billy Sherrill (the guy who would shape some of his greatest material). It also came in the midst of his marriage to Tammy Wynette (whom he sings it to in the video version above). The buttery curl of Jones’ voice is in full effect in this song, as he pulls apart words like taffy.
5. “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)”
Appearing on the same album (1980’s I Am What I Am) as “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” this song by Harlan Sanders and Rick Beresford is yet another powerful weeper — thanks to yet another sad tale of yet another drunk mourning the loss of yet another woman. It’s familiar Jones territory, sure, but it’s also masterfully written and recorded. As with so many of Jones’ songs, tender souls should tread here carefully.
4. “The Race Is On”
This 1965 single is incredibly catchy and lots of fun. You’ll find yourself smiling along at the clever turns of phrase and the way Jones spits them out with practiced clarity against a roller-coaster melody — that is, until you realize the true meaning behind them. “There’s ache and pain in my heart for today was the one that I hated to face,” Jones sings. “Somebody new came up to win her, and I came out in second place.”
3. “The Grand Tour”
This 1974 single is right up there with “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “A Good Year for the Roses” in terms of laying bare an emotionally wrecked soul. Written by Norro Wilson, the song unfolds as a man offers the listener a ‘tour’ through the house he once shared with his family, which is now split apart. The pairing of devastating lyrics (“As you leave you see the nursery, oh she left me without mercy/Taking nothing but our baby and my heart”) and Jones’ passionate performance are, as usual, what makes this song one of country music’s greatest.
2. “A Good Year for the Roses”
With lyrics that hone in on the most devastating of details, this song will tear you apart. “I can hardly bare the sight of lipstick on the cigarettes there in the ashtray/”Lyin’ cold the way you left them, but at least your lips caressed them while you packed,” Jones sings. “And a lip print on a half-filled cup of coffee that you poured and didn’t drink/But at least you thought you wanted it, that’s so much more than I can say for me.” Jerry Chesnut wrote the song (he also penned the Elvis hit “T-R-O-U-B-L-E”), but Jones filled it with pain, turning it into one of the finest achievements of his career. No wonder both Alan Jackson and Elvis Costello were quick to cover it.
1. “He Stopped Loving Her Today”
By this point, nearly every self-respecting country fan is familiar with this song, which was written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman. It was the lead single from the 1980 Jones album I Am What I Am, but since then it’s taken on considerable weight; many consider it not only Jones’ finest moment but among the greatest country songs ever recorded. Jones initially found it too “morbid,” but he certainly came around quickly once he saw the impact it had on his listeners. Be careful with this one, it’ll get you every time.