George's Gems

  • Share
  • Read Later
"Life to Go" (Disc 2, Track 23, "Cup of Loneliness: The Classic Mercury Years," Mercury/Polygram, 1994)

One of the joys of "boxed sets" and "collector's editions" is the booklets that tend to come with them. The one for this compilation is particularly good, full of not-often-seen photos and great stories.

One of the best tales is about the creation of this song, a Jones-penned tune (George was a prolific and talented songwriter early in his career). Rather than paraphrase, here's what the notes, written by Colin Escott, have to say:

"George wrote the song after playing the Old Time Fiddlers Convention in Crockett, Texas. 'There's a prison there,' he told [writer and journalist] Alanna Nash, 'and there were a few prisoners at the show. One of them was an old man. I got talking to him and he said he was in for murder. I asked him how long he'd been in, and he said, "Eighteen years." And I said, "Well, when do you get out?" and he said, "I don't. I still got life to go."'

"George wrote the song with Johnny Cash in mind, but Cash wouldn't touch it. Finally, Stonewall Jackson heard it and persuaded George to let him have it. It became Stonewall's first hit in 1959, and George cut it soon after for an album of other people's hits."

From that stray comment by the pathetic prisoner, Jones concocted a story of a night on the town gone wrong and the resultant misery caused. It's one of those tracks that, because of a certain atmosphere and sadness, stands out from the rest of an album — think "Home Again" on Carol King's "Tapestry," or "Broadway" on Alison Krauss's "Now That I've Found You."

But this song is in a class of its own. It's so sad it makes one want to go straight down to death row and pull the lever — put the poor beggars out of their misery. If long-term prison sentences are what the anti–death penalty folks advocate instead of George W. Bush's preferred prescription, then theirs is surely the more cruel punishment.

A particularly eerie part is the verse in which the sap at the center of Jones' tale tells how he turns on his friend and kills him. It's a spookily similar situation to the one I described a couple of columns back, when George, during one his lowest moments in the '70s, shot at his buddy Earl "Peanut" Montgomery. Only difference: George missed.

"I went one night, where the lights are bright/ To see what I could see/ I met up with an old friend there, who thought the world of me/ He bought me drinks, and he took me to every honky-tonk in town/ But words were said, and now he's dead/ I just had to bring him down."

Johnny Cash was not wise to turn this one down. It's got that fast-walking rhythm so often used by the Man in Black, and presages by many years his hits about Folsom and San Quentin prisons. (Of course, I'll always forgive Cash for such lapses because of his oft-quoted quote about Jones, with whom he spent many a misspent mile on the road in their early careers: "Who's your favorite singer?" Cash is asked. "You mean," he responds, "apart from George Jones?")

In truth, this isn't one of Jones' best performances — his phrasing seems just a little off and he doesn't seem quite in the mood to milk every ounce of melancholy. It's almost as if he's miffed that Cash spurned him and that he's having to lay down the track to fill an album. But Jones is still Jones, it's undoubtedly a great song, and producer Pappy Daily has done a fine job of setting the scene, providing some haunting fiddle and a light touch of wailing pedal steel.

I've urged before that those fans who haven't got this album do so with utmost speed. Like no other compilation, its 48 tracks, ranging from the mid-'50s to the early '60s, show the development of the Possum from a derivative honky-tonker to the world's best country singer. It's being purveyed by your nearest Internet dealer, though without the booklet described above, which was only included in a "Limited Collector's Edition," since sold out. It'll still be worth your while.