It’s time to refresh the iPod. I’m getting a little tired of the selections I have now. The other day I just couldn’t find a song that would get my blood moving—and then George Jones began to tell me stories of misery distilled from heartbreak and suitable for decanting into a broken bottle with a black ribbon tied around it. 

The song that convinced me to spend the rest of the morning walk listening to George Jones was “The Grand Tour.” In that piece of musical misery, the heartbroken narrator shows folks around his house while pointing out all the things he associates with his wife, who has just up and left, taking only the baby with her. (He doesn’t tell us why she suddenly hit the road, but I suspect the co-respondent in this case might have been a whiskey bottle.) 

I never had this album, but I admire the cover art. I think this is what you see in your rear-view mirror when you have the DTs.

Jones is particularly adept at that form of passive-aggressive country and western. Take, for instance, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” The reason he stopped loving her is (SPOILER ALERT) because he’s dead. Now he’s lying in his coffin with a smile finally on his lips, and I figure that smile is there in part because his last thought was, “Now she’ll understand what she’s done to me.” And how about those love letters from his past, on which he’s underlined every “I love you” in red? Then there’s “She Thinks I Still Care,” where the humble narrator insists that he doesn’t care at all, but you can tell he wants everyone to know how much he’s hurting. Don’t mind me, I’ll just sit here alone with my whiskey and cry quietly to myself until I pass out on the floor. Wouldn’t want to be a bother. 

These songs could have been maudlin tear jerkers, except it’s George Jones who sings them. The man’s voice is an absolutely unique instrument. It cries and chokes and sobs and soars and just packs a whole lot of tortured humanity into the tales of woe that Jones relates. Years ago Frank Sinatra said that George Jones was the second best singer in America (I think he reserved the top slot for Jerry Garcia), and Frank was on to something. He might have also recognized a kindred spirit. He and George both specialized in songs that are best appreciated when one slumps over a bar and gazes dismally into a glass full of a potent beverage. It’s a pity that Frank and George never recorded a duet. Picture the two of them together on “My Way,” or “I Gotta Get Drunk.” 

Jones also sings what is probably my favorite country song of all time, “These Days I Barely Get By.” It’s a classic, mainly because in this one I get the sense that George is poking fun at his own moroseness. “I woke up this morning aching with pain,” he begins, and it’s all downhill from there. His dog died, he’s going to lose his job, and the horse on which he bet his last two bucks lost by a nose. Not only did his wife leave him, she first placed all the unpaid bills on the desk in the hall. Now that’s cold. 

Of course, Jones himself knew a lot about barely getting by. I read some biographies of him some time ago and boy, oh, boy, he was out there—shooting out TVs, arguing with himself in a weird Donald Duck voice, and earning a reputation for skipping performances that got him the nickname “No Show Jones.” The absolute topper is the story of how then-wife Tammy Wynette once took his car keys to keep him from going out and boozing, so George just drove down to the local liquor store on his riding lawnmower. That’s hardcore! 

I understand that Mr. Jones has cleaned up his act since then, but he’s left traces of his wild years behind in all his songs. I walked around the neighborhood listening to his stories of misery and heartache, and by the time I got home I felt pretty good.