George's Gems

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"Someone's Watching Over You" (Track 1, "Homecoming in Heaven," originally issued on United Artists in 1962, reissued by Razor & Tie in 1995). Click here to listen

Because my wife and I now have a baby daughter — and because our media salaries don't afford many hours of baby-sitting — our social lives have taken a turn to the stay-at-home direction. But being chez nous on Saturday nights has it compensations, like being able to watch the "Grand Ole Opry" on TNN. And last Saturday, following the Opry, it provided a special treat in the form of a repeat episode of "The George Jones Show," the Possum's attempt at being a talk-show host, which had a short life on TNN in 1998 and 1999. (In those days I couldn't watch because TNN, which used to stand for The Nashville Network but now is called The National Network, wasn't carried on my cable system.)

Why George Jones? Matt Diebel explains here.

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

To be honest, you have be a pretty big fan to dig this show. The Possum never was very talkative or loose, and that doesn't change under the lights of a studio. With his usual awkwardness, which is endearing during concerts but doesn't go over so well in this setting, poor George looks like he'd rather be somewhere — anywhere — else. However, his guests on this particular episode — Lorrie Morgan (why hasn't she made it big-time?), Sammy Kershaw (unremarkable, but did a nice acoustic version of an old Jones hit) and Jo Dee Messina (who ever heard of a country singer from Massachusetts?) — did a good job of keeping the conversation going.

All of them got to do a pair of numbers to plug their latest projects. George, though, should have stuck to laughing at Morgan and Kershaw's stories — his couple of songs were the worst performances by him I have ever seen, including a pitiful rendition of "You Comb Her Hair," which is one of my favorite Jones tunes.

Still, I enjoyed my hour and a half of country music, especially seeing Connie Smith on the "Opry" performing her biggest hit, "Once a Day," the Jones version of which I profiled a few weeks back. (Jones has often been quoted, incidentally, as saying that Smith is his favorite chanteuse.) However, after George's terrible attempt at singing from a TelePrompTer, I needed to reassure myself that he was indeed the best country singer who ever graced a stage. So I put on this album of gospel tunes produced in 1962.

The first track up is this one, and it is a joy. And I was immediately transported back to the Jones I know and love. Though at first listen it appears to be a somewhat forbidding dirge — a slow-paced recitation of the good deeds that will put one on the path to the Pearly Gates — it proves to be a one-track demonstration of almost every weapon in the Possum's considerable vocal arsenal. The first line is understated, almost spoken. The second builds. The third is a crescendo, culminating in what must be the most fabulous single-syllable word ever recorded; I counted at least eight distinct notes. Then later in the song he does the same word again — and treats it quite differently. Quite simply, no one else is capable of such vocal fireworks — or at least carrying it off without making it sound like he or she is showing off. That, of course, is one of the joys of Jones: Though he has every tool at his disposal, he has never (until in late in his career, at least) used them other than to enhance the song.

That kind of restraint is particularly important in one aspect of "Someone's Watching Over You": a spoken middle eight. If you're like me, you look forward to most of these sappy soliloquies just about as much as seeing the bottom line on your 1040 form (or getting another peek at "Grand Ole Opry" emcee "Whispering" Bill Anderson's overdone face-lift). But George carries it off with aplomb — adding just the right touch of disbelief to the dollops of sincerity.

The song itself comes from what might seem like an unexpected source: J. P. Richardson, aka The Big Bopper, best known for the upbeat "Chantilly Lace" and for having perished with fellow rockers Buddy Holly and Richie Valens in a 1959 plane crash. Richardson, though, before he entered the rock world — which, of course, was not as divorced from country as it is today — came from a rural background similar to Jones'. In fact, the two were pals in Beaumont, Texas, where the Possum's family moved when he was a boy. Richardson also was a discovery of Jones' original producer, the great Pappy Daily, and wrote George's first No. 1 hit, "White Lightning."

Normally I'm full of praise at this point for Pappy's production or the session men's work. But there's not really much to say here; the backing is nothing much more that some strumming, a slow drum beat and a bit of vocal trilling by the Jordanaires or some such group. Of course, that's just fine in my book, which says that less in the background means more Jones up front.

As mentioned in a previous article, "Homecoming in Heaven" was re-released by Razor & Tie, a New York-based reissue label. It's still available; a mere mouse click or two will bring it winging to your home.