Review Summary: As raw as the cheapest whiskey, as pretty as the girl you can’t forget1 of 1 thought this review was well written
Today George Jones is regarded by many Country music fans as the greatest Country singer who ever lived. With an active career of very nearly 60 years and more than 150 hit singles it’s not difficult to see why he’s viewed with respect even by someone who’s never even cracked open one of his albums. But there was a quality to Jones that allowed him to outlast every evolution of country music right up until the 21st Century. It wasn’t just that he had one of the finest ears for harmony in Country music or that his music could evolve and grow with every emerging trend in the genre. It was that he meant every word of every song he ever played. Jones had more love for Country music than maybe any other singer to have ever lived and he imbued every single note of his work with that emotion. Through every trend and style change in his career, Jones never lost sight of the central root of his music or his own openness and honesty.
By 1980 however, Jones was staring rock bottom right in the face. Years of alcohol and cocaine abuse had nearly destroyed his body and his gun-shy and unreliable demeanor at live concerts had come damn close to destroying his career. He hadn’t seen the top of the charts since he’d recorded “The Door” in 1974 and he’d just come out of a stint in a mental ward in Alabama, an experience that apparently had little effect on his instability or his substance abuse. George was clearly intent on embracing his total self destruction in a mind numbing haze of cocaine and alcohol and it looked like nothing was going to stop him. It was at this point in his life that his career received a sharp reversal with the release of his most popular hit single “He Stopped Loving Her Today”. The album “I Am What I Am” followed soon after, rocketing George back into the spotlight and cementing his position as the most resilient and relevant voice in Country music.
What makes “I Am What I Am” such a musical triumph instead of just another footnote in the history of the sad decline of a cokehead musician is just how readily Jones embraces his self destructive tendencies and wrestles them into his music. George is immersed completely into every verse, more emotive than he’d ever sounded before or ever would since. Instantly believable as a storyteller, whether describing scenes of waking up in the bathroom floor of some unremembered ***hole or waiting for either alcohol or a broken heart to kill him, there is a sense that Jones really means it
, as if he is relating some of the darkest moments from his life to us, a searing confessional that would be downright ugly if it wasn’t delivered so gorgeously. And this album is pretty beyond belief. Every instrument is restrained without being subdued, providing points, flourishes and counterpoints to the stories Jones lays out. The string swells in the refrain of “He Stopped Loving Her Today”; probably the most grandiose flourish on the album, as well as the backing gospel choir on “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me” are touches that compliment rather than overwhelm or even support George’s confident, emotive tenor.
And that tenor is what owns the album. It’s no accident that George sings the first line of the album unaccompanied by any instrumentation. Everything beyond that is just the framework. The moment he croons out “He said ‘I’ll love you ‘til I die’/she said ‘you’ll forget in time’”, the listener is immediately arrested by every single quality that made Jones a great singer, unadorned by any instrumentation. And said opener, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is possibly the greatest moment in the entire genre, a dynamic, sweeping piece backed by a perfectly placed string section that doesn’t even come close to overwhelming Jones as he crescendos into the chorus, pauses and gently brings it back down to the next verse, relating the story of lost love more poignantly than any other could. The brutal honesty continues with “I’ve Aged Twenty Years In Five” and “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me”, two of the most ragged, booze soaked songs I’ve ever heard in my life. “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me”, especially, with the backing choir in the chorus and the aching steel guitar line is a highlight of the album.
Much like Jones himself, the mood of the album is somewhat mercurial, as the fifth track, “His Loving Her Is Getting In My Way”, makes an abrupt switch from the naked ugliness of the earlier tracks and shows a wry sense of humor from Jones. Instead of lamenting his lost love, he’s cursing the man who stole her, now apparently living in his home and drinking his good tequila. While it’s not as powerful as some of the other material on the album it’s a lighthearted break from all the heaviness and it serves its purpose well, as well as being a damn good honky-tonk tune. The album continues much in this vein, with the emotionally heavier ballads such as “I’m Not Ready Yet” and “I’m The One She’ll Miss Him With Today” being followed by a string of more light-hearted numbers including a rollicking cover of Waylon Jenning’s “Good Hearted Woman”, a rendition that more than does the original justice as well as the classic “Hard Act To Follow”, a toe tapping, infectious tune with a damn catchy melody and a little more of Jones’ humor. You can almost hear him smiling as he sings this track. The album closes at a brief 28 minutes with another lighthearted number, “Bone Dry” a song that’s ironically about kicking alcohol for good, something Jones was never completely able to do, despite being able to cut back significantly thanks to the woman he met soon after recording this album, a move which probably ended up saving his life.
On “I Am What I Am” George took his tenor, along with the mainstay Country music themes of drinking and heartbreak and made the entire genre his own. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that on this moment George Jones was the spirit of Country music embodied and made flesh, a claim that could only be laid on a very few other Country albums, including “Red Headed Stranger” and the immortal “At Folsom Prison”. Unfortunately, it’s taken Jones’ death just this year for his work to get more recognition outside of the Country music fandom. But with increased exposure comes increased appreciation and Jones is already acknowledged as one of the great singers of our time. And God knows we could all appreciate some good Country music in this current popular music climate.