World Records, No. 12: George Jones – ‘I Am What I Am’ (1980)

Last time on World Records, we took a look at Rosanne Cash’s Seven Year Ache album, which signaled a breakthrough for an aspiring young talent. The early half of this decade saw plenty more breakthroughs and new arrivals, too. But what about the veteran acts? In truth, that’s a more complex conversation and one of the pieces that contributes to the general nuttiness of this decade as a whole. Some, like Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, struggled to gain commercial traction during this time period while others found new life (which will be the thematic point for both this discussion and our next one). By all accounts, this first artist shouldn’t have rebounded – and that’s me speaking more from fact than opinion – but he did, and the results may have just made for the finest album of his career:

George Jones I Am What I Am

Even if most people use hyperbole when describing George Jones and his talent, it’s hard to argue that it’s ever wrong, subjective as this exercise is anyway. The easy part comes in giving him his fair due as one of the genre’s best-ever vocalists, if not the very best. The hard part comes in describing exactly why that is, beyond just a surface analysis. There’s something contradictory here that feels like it shouldn’t work: How does his buttery tone manage to add an uncomfortable rawness to his recordings? I think it comes in the way he stretches out his words and syllables, pulling them apart and mining them for every ounce of emotion they could possibly carry – to the point where there’s a feeling of truth that’s impossible to turn away from or capture.

Again, damn hyperbole. But it’s true. It’s like he gets inside the lyrics and loses himself within them, rather than just sings them – a true statement regardless of whether he’s acting jovial or sorrowful. It’s the sort of tradition that echoes his influences through Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, and, of course, Hank Williams, and like them, it’s those moments where he’s at the bottom of the barrel where he makes songs his own, even despite the fact that he was never known as a songwriter.

Of course, those even remotely familiar with Jones’ history know that I can synthesize the context for the rest of his career down to a constant cycle of real-life heartache and alcoholism, though the late ‘70s may have been the roughest period of all. He and Tammy Wynette divorced, he declared bankruptcy, tried (and failed) to quit drinking, battled with drug abuse, and earned a reputation as “No-Show Jones” for missing shows regularly. Even commercially, Jones had started to falter. Working with producer Billy Sherrill may have seemed like an odd choice for him, given the producer’s reputation for imbuing Nashville Sound production into his works. And indeed, some tracks from the era are too sickly sweet to revisit today. But considering the era also gave us classics like “Good Year For the Roses” and “The Grand Tour,” when the vibe was right Jones’ voice fit Sherrill’s melodramatic approach exceptionally well.

Even still, Jones hadn’t had a No. 1 hit since “The Door,” in 1974, and given both his personal problems and the changing environment of the country music industry as a whole as it roared into the new decade, this could have been the end of the story.

Except, we know that’s not the case, and we know it’s because of one song, in particular, that rejuvenated Jones both commercially and professionally (well, that and rehab). “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is often cited by critics, historians, and fans as the greatest country song ever made: a story of a man who loved a significant other even after the relationship ended, until his dying day. Not only that, but when she comes back to attend his funeral, it really hits home just how far his love and commitment ran. Even for an artist like Jones, he considered the song too morbid to become a hit and bet $100 to Sherrill against it. His loss, then, become a gain for Sherrill, fans, and country music in general – a perfect marriage of vocal interpretation and songwriting, if there ever was one.

Of course, the evergreen statement I’ve made throughout this series comes up here once again: Jones wasn’t much of an album artist. There’s also an argument to be made that “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is the real conversation point for today’s feature. But I also think time has been kind to I Am What I Am, not just as a great comeback album but as a classic honky-tonk collection in general and arguably Jones’ finest. And as we now turn away from hyperbole and objective calculations to deliver a personal, subjective review of the album, I’ll say it: “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is maybe, like, my fifth or sixth favorite song on the album.

In saying that, however, you’d think I’d have some grandiose direction for this review. But in truth, this may be the simplest and most straightforward album I’ve reviewed through this series yet. It’s not that it necessarily breaks any new ground for Jones or differs much from the formula he and Sherrill had established during the previous decade. For as much of a hard country vocalist as Jones is, the softer touches of piano and strings that accentuate this album fill the space with a more sophisticated update on the Nashville Sound that’s emblematic of what I love about this particular era. It still plays in closer proximity to, say, the lonesome honky-tonks that contemporaries of the era like Gary Stewart and Moe Bandy frequented over the lounge-like vibes of Charlie Rich – especially with the added benefit of pedal steel, fiddle, and, what I consider to be this album’s secret weapon: the harmonica – but it’s all performed with a stronger gusto that suggests Jones really was at a renewed point in his life.

Even still, that doesn’t mean this album lets itself off with a lighter touch. Jones only has one writing credit here, yet it still feels like an album that speaks to situations he’s lived through and knows all too well. And it’s what it also sets the strong conviction in his performances, like how a smooth but strong delivery reflects a singer who’s felt the miles of a hard life on “I’ve Aged Twenty Years in Five” and has lived to tell the tale. It’s the same gusto that informs the incredible high of one of his lowest lows on “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will).”

Really, pain is what informs the entire front half of this album, given how “Brother to the Blues” is sandwiched in between those songs and contains another excellent hook, a song about two lonely souls coming together to use each other for a night of passion while also feeling guilty about furthering that loneliness. It’s a track like that which shows a sharper maturity and self-awareness in the material in general, where he’d like so badly to be that better version of himself and come out on the other side, even despite having a history to show for it on “I’ve Aged Twenty Years in Five” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” But it’s easier said than done, and even if he does give into his vices on the other two aforementioned tracks, it’s not like he isn’t aware of the consequences or shame this time around or use it to right himself back on track. Even still, he’s only human.

It’s also why, despite the obvious plays for melodrama that he excels at, this album still feels reserved in a better, more mature way compared to previous offerings. Tom T. Hall’s trademark conversational style slides in naturally through “I’m Not Ready Yet,” where there’s still that childlike innocence in wanting so badly to dream big and aim higher for one’s self, even despite knowingly coming at it from an older perspective that’s not ready to give in yet. Down but never out: the thesis statement for this album and maybe Jones’ life in general.

Granted, after that the album does tend to slip into sillier territory, which isn’t out of character for Jones either and does likely set up a needed counterbalance. But it also means it naturally lacks the same punch and heft as the more grounded first half. That’s not to say it doesn’t still offer its more surprising moments: “Bone Dry” ends the album in the same morbid fashion as it began, only with more of an honestly hilarious shock value than before in its depiction of a character trying so desperately to quit drinking (you can guess how it eventually happens). But the “Good Hearted Woman” cover feels incredibly tame and less convincing compared to the original, especially when there’s a natural swagger needed for that song that just doesn’t fit a more reserved, thankful album like this. And while “His Lovin’ Her Is Gettin’ In My Way” and “A Hard Act to Follow” are both goofy, fun cuts I appreciate, “I’m the Only One She Missed Him With Today” has always come across a little too smug to me.

But it’s also hard not to hear the renewed version of Jones through this album as a whole – the one who’d eventually get clean later in the decade and sounds rejuvenated here, even despite featuring some of the most somber, hardbitten material of his entire career. Again, that opening song usually takes all the glory – and for good reason – but Jones truly is what he is here, and that’s highlighting time and time again.

Join me next time, where we’ll discuss another career rejuvenation, with Merle Haggard’s Back to the Barrooms.

2 thoughts on “World Records, No. 12: George Jones – ‘I Am What I Am’ (1980)

  1. Great review! Like you, while I recognize “He Stopped Loving Her Today” as a great, classic song, it is also not my favourite on this album. That would be “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me…,” which is one of my all-time George Jones songs and one of his very best.

    This is a fantastic album and we’re fortunate that this was a rebound for him, since he had some other great albums after this.

    Liked by 1 person

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