George Jones with ronnie prophet at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), Friday (September 23), 7:30 pm. $49.50-$79.50. 416-872-4255. Rating: NNNNN
With the exception of Willie Nelson, there are only two kinds of male country singers today: there's George Jones, and then there's everyone who wishes he could sing like him. But even though Jones has had more hit records than just about anyone in the business, there have been a few that got away over the years.
For his latest album, Hits I Missed... And One I Didn't (Bandit), the country icon who just turned 74 last week lends his still powerful voice to a personal selection of songs he's admired by old friends and the new hombres coming up. Some, in fact, were originally pitched to Jones, but for one reason or another he passed on them at the time. According to Jones, who usually knows a good tune when he hears one, it's not always his fault when a potential hit is let slip.
"Sometimes it's just the quality of the demo," says Jones from his car, waiting for his wife, Nancy, to finish her shopping. "If whoever is singing and playing isn't getting it right, you can miss what could be a great song.
"And, of course, sometimes people just choose the wrong time and place to pitch their song. I wish I'd been in a better mood when I heard Too Cold At Home the first time, because that's a really good tune. But I believe these things happen for a reason, and very often it all works out for the best."
Certainly, Mark Chesnutt would agree. His version of Bobby L. Harden's Too Cold At Home, initially recorded for the Houston-based Cherry label in 1990, led to a contract with MCA Records, which helped turn the song into a number-two country smash, essentially launching Chesnutt's career.
Similarly, country legend Don Gibson might only be known as a songwriter today had Jones not passed on Oh, Lonesome Me, which Gibson had crafted with Jones in mind. At the urging of Chet Atkins, Gibson recorded his own version, which became a million-selling classic.
"I'd heard that Don had written Oh, Lonesome Me with me in mind to sing it, but I couldn't do it. At the time, I was still under contract with Pappy Daily at Starday, where I wasn't allowed to record any song they couldn't get a cut of the publishing on.
"It got to where none of the good writers hooked up with other publishers in Nashville would pitch me their best stuff. I had to come up with my own songs then. That's when I wrote Window Up Above."
Along with interpretations of familiar jukebox faves like Henson Cargill's Skip A Rope, Bobby Bare's Detroit City and Merle Haggard's Today I Started Loving You Again, Jones somewhat oddly also includes a revision of his own all-time country classic He Stopped Loving Her Today, which hits just as hard as the original.
One of Jones's great strengths as a performer is his ability to put across overly familiar material in a way that sounds like it's being sung for the first time. It's an impressive feat made all the more remarkable by knowing he's done He Stopped Loving Her Today in just about every set since first recording it in 1980.
"It's a mad, dog-eat-dog world. Because I'm no longer affiliated with the label that released it originally, every time we want to release something with that song on it we need to pay a big licensing fee. So I decided to record it again for my current label. I think it has a much clearer sound there have been a lot of advances in recording over the last 25 years.
"Each night I sing that song, it's just like when I originally recorded it. I still put my heart into it as if everything that's going on in the lyrics is happening to me right at that moment. It's hard to explain, but I become the person in the song, feeling what they're feeling as I'm singing. When you really feel a song, it comes across."