I Am What I Am
28:15 min • Epic • September, 1980
This is one of the greatest country music records ever cut. This is what country music should be – there’s no flag-sucking phoney patriotism, there’s no spit and polish sound, and there’s nothing about pickup trucks and chicks that run around with their tits hanging out. This is a dark album, full of heartbreak, copious amounts of whiskey and the best male voice in the genre, George Jones.
The album starts with one of Jones’ greatest songs, ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’, which is quite possibly the best three-minutes in country music. Accompanied by a slow and somber steel guitar, Jones sings the story of a man who never forgot his lost love and only stopped loving her when he died. The starkness and heaviness of the emotion is laid out best in Jones’ lyrics, “It kept running through my mind, this time he’s over her for good”.
The somber tone carries through the next three cuts, ‘I’ve Aged Twenty Years in Five’, ‘Brother to the Blues’ and ‘If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)’, playing off the heartbreak of the first cut, Jones reaches deep into his heart and soul and delivers the most brutally honest string of songs recorded in the genre. George’s voice is fragile and deep in feeling, he’s never been one of the best technical singers out there, it’s the way his voice carries the emotions of his songs that makes it worthwhile.
But it’s not all heartbreak and a lonely sound, George knows how to rip through some pretty good honky-tonk. ‘His Lovin’ Her is Gettin’ in My Way’ offers a bit of a break from the more somber moments on the LP. True, George is still lamenting the woman he used to love, but here he approaches it in an almost joking manner. He’s not mad at the woman, he’s mad at the man who fell for her, singing about this bastard drinking his tequila and good Scotch and using his mirror to shave in the morning. It’s still heartbreak, but George knows that the joke is on him this time and he doesn’t seem to mind.
The next two cuts swing back into melancholy, ‘I’m Not Ready Yet’ and ‘I’m the One She Missed Him With Today’. While not as strong musically or lyrically as some of the other more somber numbers, they’re certainly not bad songs. Especially the steel guitar on ‘I’m Not Ready Yet’, it definitely keeps the album moving.
George finally breaks his melancholy and ends this album with a string of three hot honky-tonk jumpers. First is ‘Good Hearted Woman’, originally recorded by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, an upbeat number about a woman tolerating her man’s wild ways and late nights. The lyrics are typical country fare, but once again it’s George’s honest voice that sells the song.
‘A Hard Act to Follow’ is probably the oddest song of the album. It’s still love, but it’s not broken-hearted romance this time. George has his sights set on the lady and he’s the one doing the chasing, hoping this one won’t crush him like all the others apparently have. It’s the closest thing to a rocker on this album and it kicks the mood right back up after so many tracks of loneliness.
The album closes with ‘Bone Dry’, a fitting closer if there was one; after singing about drinking himself into oblivion, George leaves his listeners with a bit of a humorous number about kicking the sauce for good. The track has the most tongue-in-cheek lyrics George ever sung:
I got my doubts if I can make it a bone dry
It’s a crazy world I don’t know if I can take it a bone dry
It’s only been an hour I’m startin’ to shake
Sixty more minutes and I know I’ll break
How much more of this hell can I take bone dry.
His withdrawal symptoms are presented graphically, but the light-hearted tone of the song makes it less daunting than it really is.
George Jones delivered the most brutally honest record in country music and that’s what makes this one stand above the rest. He certainly wasn’t the only one to sing about heartbreak and too much liquor; other greats did it as well, legends like Hank Williams Sr. (‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ and ‘Honky Tonk Blues’) and Johnny Cash (‘I Walk the Line’ and ‘Ring of Fire’), but the way George did it was unique in the way his vocals were done. There’s no hiding, no studio tricks, nothing fancy, George lets his voice carry the weight of his songs and stories, you can feel the reality of his trials and tribulations in a way you can’t with any other country music artist and this album is the greatest expression of his emotional vocal talent.
This album stands up even stronger in the light of contemporary American country music. Country music today is basically watered down rock ‘n’ roll played by rich hilljacks with studio tricks and vocal manipulation. The singers of today are either a bunch of flag-suckers endlessly praising America or they’re singing about a mythological down home town they never really knew. There’s no honest emotion in the music anymore, nor is there a real distinct sound. George Jones blows all these new guys away with his starkness and the unique bluesy sound of his backing band. No country record today or tomorrow can come close to I Am What I Am.