George Jones’ death last year at 82 years of age, at least 40 of which were highly improbable, overshadowed anything else about the Possum in 2013. But kudos to Omnivore Records for filling in a major gap in the digital discography of the greatest voice in country and western music.
Getting the definitive Jones requires more attention than should be necessary. This is only partly because Jones bounced around from label to label: beginning in 1955 there was Starday, followed by the Starday affiliate Mercury (1959-1961), United Artists (1962-1965), Musicor (1966-1971), Epic (1972-1991), MCA (1992-2000), with some semi-embarrassed collections self-released on the Bandit label TF. More to the point, Jones recorded so prolifically and flat well even through the MCA era that the few multilabel compilations (including two 4-CD box sets, neither one of which is especially useful at this point) overlap enough to be redundant but diverge enough to be necessary if that’s all you choose from.
Well, we can now piece together a reasonable label-by-label overview of the awesome fecundity of George Jones the artist, which is how I recommend you create a right-sized reference library. The canonical Starday compilation, 1977’s 16 Greatest Hits, never got a digital release, and since only a handful of his Starday recordings were actual “hits”, the Starday reissues vary. But 2007’s Time-Life Early Hits: The Starday Recordings trumps Gusto’s 22 Early Starday Recordings (2013) even if one of those 22 is the jaw-dropping “Boogie Woogie Mexican Boy”. Or skip straight to Cup of Loneliness: The Classic Mercury Years (Polygram, 1994), which covers the Starday recordings less idiosyncratically while filling out the remainder of the Mercury years over two CDs. If you time it right, you can find a used copy of Cup of Loneliness for under $20. Throughout his recordings on these sister labels, you’ll appreciate how Jones bounced around, testing genres like rockabilly (which he reportedly detested, and you’ll only want to hear his “Heartbreak Hotel” once), until he finally discovered his unimaginable phraseology and fabricated the country music Prince of Darkness persona that resides within songs like “I’m Gonna Burn Your Playhouse Down”.
Omnivore steps up to the plate to capture Jones’ next era with last years’ The Complete United Artists Solo Singles, which compiles everything you want to hear on UA beginning with the existentially bereft “She Thinks I Still Care”. This CD presents Jones now fully formed as the benchmark male country music vocalist, lubriciously with “The Race Is On”, forebearingly doomed on heartbreakers like “Brown to Blue”, and with increasingly self-referential jibes epitomized by “Big Fool of the Year”. Since Omnivore limits itself to singles releases, you get enough oddball tunage to shake things up—Jones finally bows down to “Kaw Liga” on the hysterical “Geronimo” and you’ve never lived until you’ve heard “My Mom and Santa Claus (Twistin’ Santa Claus)”, which is pure fornication unter der Weihnachtsbaum. Let the classic era begin. (And thank Omnivore for the six-track vinyl after-party United Artists Rarities, a Record Store Day release that still circulates: Just enough arcana, including a hole-in-one Melba Montgomery duet, “Alabama”.)
Beyond this, you can fill up the space in your collection reserved for Jones with Time-Life’s George Jones: The Great Lost Hits (2010), which covers the Musicor years beginning with the world-historical “Walk Through This World With Me” over 34 tracks, and Anniversary: Ten Years of Hits (1982) for the prime portion of the Epic era, keeping in mind that Epic’s All Time Greatest Hits: Volume 1 (1977) contains re-recordings that are nonetheless worthy in their whiskey-soaked wisdom. For the MCA era denouemont, spend your money well on 20th Century Masters: Millenium Collection.
Of course, this leaves big gaps: you’ll need at least two volumes of collabs with Tammy Wynette and one with Melba Montgomery, and maybe one more with 1979’s My Very Special Guests (go ahead and splurge on the 37-song Legacy Edition, although the 10-track original is primo). But be careful of late era duets, where Jones’ partners often carry him across the finish line. (And the Gene Pitney album proves that even a robust Jones couldn’t light up everybody.) Avoid his gospel recordings. (The country-gospel apotheosis remains Loretta’s Hymns.) Maybe find a few regular release albums that suit your fancy: the Hank Williams tributes are fine and the Billy Sherrill releases on Epic are unjustly maligned. And check out that video of Possum getting pulled over while drunk-driving on a lawn mower, which pretty much completes the circle of life.