It’s a little embarrassing these days to say you once were a Don Imus fan. By the time he died earlier this year, he was thought of — to the extent that he was thought of at all — as a racist has-been. But for several years during the mid to late ’90s, his nationally syndicated radio show was a favorite of the chattering classes. I was an avid listener during my morning commute. And the one thing I don’t regret about it is that he introduced me to George Jones.
Which is why “The Essential George Jones” is on my list of top 25 albums. Somewhat different from the “Essential” album you’ll find on Spotify, with a different cover, the 1994 two-CD set features 44 songs from Jones’ long, booze-drenched career. I’m not a fan of his upbeat songs; the man just didn’t have the knack, and I find stuff like “White Lightning” and “I’m a People” pretty much unlistenable.
But those ballads. And that voice. From “Just One More” to “A Good Year for the Roses,” from “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds” to “Bartender’s Blues,” Jones takes over a song with waves of depth and emotion.
Jones’ Mount Olympus is “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which hit No. 1 in 1980. Often described as the greatest country song ever, it is so floridly sentimental, with swelling strings and a chorus by way of producer Billy Sherrill, that it would inspire laughs in lesser hands. Instead, Jones elevates it to something so fragile and heartbreaking that it’s almost unbearable.
I went to see him just today, oh but I didn’t see no tears / All dressed up to go away, first time I’d seen him smile in years.