George's Gems

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"The Selfishness in Man" (Track 9, "George Jones Sings the Great Songs of Leon Payne," 1971, Musicor; re-released, Hollywood Records, 1987 and 1994). Play a section of the song here

Sometimes you find yourself liking songs you think you shouldn't. That's the case with "The Selfishness in Man," a track from one of George Jones' several tribute albums, this one a paean to Leon Payne, the blind Texas singer-songwriter best known for the Jim Reeves hit "I Love You Because."

Oh no, you think, as a trilling mandolin sets the scene and the Possum croons (magnificently, of course) for the first verse and a half about sunlight, flowers and such — a reverie, seemingly, about the wonders of nature. You wonder if Jones has been hitting the sappy bottle a little too hard; whether he's trying to turn into a second Gentleman Jim.

But no. The second verse starts out in similar fashion — and then, with a couple of lines, sneaks up and makes your skin crawl with the horror of recognition.

"Little children painting pictures
"Of the birds and apple trees
"Oh, why can't the grown-up people
"Have the faith of one of these?
"And to think those tiny fingers
"Might become a killer's hands
"Oh, there's nothing that stands out more
"Than the selfishness in man."

There's no one better to lull you into the false sense of security essential to this song than Jones. Almost talking at times, he walks through the first verse and a half as though he's singing a lullaby, and then, with no real build-up, delivers the telling words. There's an almost indiscernible change in tone — not too much — and the deed is done.

 

Why George Jones? Matt Diebel explains here.

Past Gems:
The Honky Tonk Downstairs
'Once a Day'
'When Your House Is Not a Home
'Three's a Crowd'
'Mr. Fool'

What makes this track particularly compelling is that it departs from the usual stock-in-trade. Though Jones is one of the most soulful singers on the planet, on most of his songs there is always a lingering feeling he is sharing an in-joke with the listener — that although he sounds as if he's lived every painful moment of every stanza, he really doesn't mean it. It's an impression brought home in concert, where there is no torture, just a vague awkwardness, as he sings his tortured tunes (indeed, he often jokes on stage about "heart-tugging tearjerkers"). On this song, though, there's not a trace of insincerity.

The studio work, done in the last year of his quarter-century association with his first producer, Pappy Daily, suffers a bit from the intrusion of Nashville over-decoration — warbling women and too-smooth piano — but, overall, it's comparatively restrained and works for the song.

The rest of the album is a mixed bag. There's the fine "Things Have Gone to Pieces" and "Take Me," but it has many of the marks of Jones' Musicor period (1965–1972), when the quality of his work suffered as he cranked out too many records.

By the way, on the cover is a photo of the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville (well worth visiting if you have the opportunity). No reason I can see for the picture to be there — Leon Payne hasn't made it in yet and Jones didn't get there until 1992 (after several people I've never heard of, like Cliffie Stone, Rod Brasfield and the delightfully named Connie B. Gay).

That's rather like if Joe DiMaggio was made to wait until the '90s to get into Cooperstown.