George Jones’s Gospel Records Are Better Than ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’

Feature: The Possum always knew he had to get right with the Lord

George Jones / AP
May 15, 2017

At some point everybody goes through a Gram Parsons phase. It’s inevitable and entirely laudable. Gram is a legend and even "Chimes of Freedom" pales in comparison with outtakes from Sweetheart of the Rodeo. But Gram was also a WASP poseur who didn’t really care if nobody bought the first Flying Burrito Brothers LP because he had a trust fund to fall back on. And his theology major at Harvard notwithstanding, I don’t get the sense when I spin "The Christian Life" or "I Am a Pilgrim" for the five-thousandth time that I am listening to somebody who is doing anything other than fetishizing stuff poor people like—Jesus, for example.

All of which is to say that if you think getting right with the Lord is an embarrassing musical conceit that happened to give rise to some solid jams, by all means stick to Sweetheart. But, if you like barrelhouse piano and buttery Telecasters and weeping steel guitar with your paeans to biblical morality, and want whoever is singing to have at least a passing interest in maybe trying to live up to the words one day, look no further than the gospel records George Jones cut intermittently between 1955 and 2003.

Country Church Time is one of the Possum’s first long-players. It’s impossible to listen to it without recalling that his first musical memory was of singing in church with his mother. It was in church that he learned the rudiments of guitar, "C, G, and D and things like that," and he was committed to praising the Lord in song years before he knew that honky-tonks were a thing. Like most of Jones’s earliest recordings, this album is very difficult to get hold of. This is a shame. "Take the Devil Out of Me" is, as its title suggests, a musical plea for exorcism. It is also a perfect summary of Jones’s career of more than half a century and, indeed, of his life of fornication, adultery, hard drinking, violence, and despair. Those of us who believe in the literal first parenthood of Adam and Eve will thrill along to "The Good Old Bible," a toe-tapping affirmation of the inspired nature of Holy Writ "from the beginning to the end."

Homecoming in Heaven and Old Brush Arbors, his two ’60s gospel records, have likewise been out of print for decades, and neither is even available in its entirety on YouTube, much less Spotify. The few critics who have bothered writing about Homecoming generally consider it one of the Possum’s worst albums, not least because no one bought it. Heck, AllMusicGuide gives it two stars. I have no idea what all this is about. There is not a bad cut on either side, and even the corporate drones tasked with assembling the track list for the 1994 All-Time Greatest Hits record—a misleading name for a compilation that draws upon only a third of a decade’s worth of work whose quality nevertheless speaks to the consistent nature of Jones’s output—included "Peace in the Valley." The sound is slicker and fuller than most of the honky-tonk stuff he had been doing before, and his voice better than it ever has been.

But Old Brush Arbors, released in 1965 and reissued once in the early ’70s just in time to appear on eight-track, is greater still. In fact, it’s probably one of the five or so best albums of the decade. Catholics and heathens alike who think of "Everlasting Arms" as "That song Robert Mitchum sings in Night of the Hunter" have not heard Jones leaping over the guitars towards heaven. His version of "I’ll Fly Away" is even better than Johnny Cash’s on My Mother’s Hymn Book.

Jones would not make another classic in the genre until 2003, years after his ostensible retirement. (We Love to Sing About Jesus, recorded in 1972 with his then-wife Tammy Wynette, barely rises above the middling strength of the material—nearly all the songs are by the less than steady hand of Earl "Peanut" Montgomery, and there are no standards—thanks to the flashy production and chorus.) It was not money that drew Jones back into the studio but a drunken car crash a few years earlier in which he was nearly killed. "It put the fear of God in me," he told one reporter. "No more smoking, no more drinking."

All of that comes through on The Gospel Collection, where for once he has the good sense not to worry about diversifying his material. Not a single song on the record would have been unknown to Clara Jones and Sister Annie more than half a century earlier: "Amazing Grace," "Where We’ll Never Grow Old," "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," "That Old Rugged Cross." Gone are the soaring jubilant choruses of "Old Brush Arbors," to be replaced with the cracking, desperate voice of a man who dreads the loss of heaven and the pains of hell and knows he has offended God. His duet with Patti Page on "Precious Memories" might just be the best version ever put on wax; it is one of those records that manages to contain in the space of a few minutes all the pain and aspiration of a lifetime. After that Jones returned to touring, but it would not be an exaggeration to point out that he had nothing left to say. A few years later, he went to the Kennedy Center where he was honored alongside The Who and Leon Wieseltier’s ex. Laura Bush spoke at his funeral.