George Jones' 20 Best Songs: Critic's Picks

George Jones performs live on stage at the Country Music Festival at the Wembley Arena in London in April 1981.
David Redfern/Redferns

George Jones performs live on stage at the Country Music Festival at the Wembley Arena in London in April 1981.

No country artist was as dominant of an artistic and commercial force for a longer period of time than George Jones. You can’t under-estimate his longevity -- or his importance.

He made his first records when Eisenhower was President, and was still recording at the time of his passing in 2013. By that time, age had slowed down the man known as “The Possum,” but just by a few steps. Jones had, to borrow a phrase from Faron Young, lived fast and loved hard, but he did leave us with so many beautiful memories through his songs.

A George Jones song could be a footloose honky-tonker, as much of his early work was. But, he was at his best when he sang about the demons that he faced, endured and outlasted. Brutally honest in song -- particularly with himself -- this is a list of 20 of the greatest George Jones singles of all time. Purposely, we left off his duets -- particularly those with Tammy Wynette that were all each three-minute soap operas to themselves, but make no mistake, Tammy’s influence -- as well as that of the women that inspired them, like his widow Nancy, are all over the map here.

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20. George Jones - "Wrong’s What I Do Best"
This 1993 MCA single barely scraped the bottom of the singles chart, but the lyrics are what makes Jones so special. A man is looking back over his life, trying to make sense of where he’s been and what he has done. Rather than try to strike an over apologetic tone, Jones surmises “maybe it’s not the right way, but wrong’s what I do best.” Yes, I screwed up, and yes, I can admit it. That’s why Jones is so loved. Nothing was hidden.

18. George Jones - "If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)”
The eternal beauty of a George Jones song was that he was going to state the truth -- no matter if it made him look worse for the wear. This 1981 hit found the singer seemingly still in mourning over a past relationship, knowing he needed to leave his demons behind him -- but doubting his own ability to do do. In concert at the time, he would often replace “Her” with “Tammy,” much to the crowd’s delight.

17. George Jones - “Tender Years”
Early on in his recording career, Jones was told to quit trying to sound like his heroes, such as Roy Acuff and Hank Williams. By the 1961 release of this number one, you can tell he was at least starting to listen a little more frequently. Sung in a lower register than many of his ballads to that point, the singer gave one of his more reflective early vocals on this one that still shines bright in the Jones song constellation.

16. George Jones - “The Window Up Above”
Many of Jones’ top performances strike a balance between a man hell-bent on doing things the way he wants them done, and someone who is mindful of the repercussions of it all, right down to the forfeiture of a happy home life. Jones added the right touch of sadness on this 1960 gem that continues to be one of the linchpins of honky-tonk music everywhere.

13. George Jones - "The Right Left Hand"
The love that George was looking for, he found in the form of wife Nancy, whom me married in 1983. By this era in his career, the singer was no longer writing -- but it’s hard to imagine him coming up with anything better to describe his life than Dennis Knutson and A.L “Doodle” Owens did in 1987.

12. George Jones - "A Good Year For The Roses"
You might mistake this lush Jones performance as one of his biggest hits on Epic after signing with the label in 1971. However, this proved to be his last major hit for Musicor Records, where he spent six successful years before teaming up with Billy Sherrill. The sound quality was not always the best at Musicor, but not on this one. Jones was in career-defining mode as he performed these lyrics about a couple who had taken the term “going through the motions” to a new high.

11. George Jones - "Wine Colored Roses"
Jones continued to be a presence at radio throughout the 1980s, and perhaps one of his most underrated was this gem from the fall of 1986 about a man who had a unique way of communicating that he still had his demons. A great hook, and still one of the most haunting George Jones performances out there.

10. George Jones - "The Door"
“To hear that sound, and to know it’s really over,” the chorus for this 1974 hit began. Simple and direct, Sherrill added the master touch of a door slamming on the record, which resonated strongly on this one.

9. George Jones - "These Days (I Barely Get By)"
If anyone knew the emotional state that George Jones was in following his divorce from Tammy Wynette, it was…Tammy Wynette. In a unique twist, Wynette took the emotional lead in this composition, Jones added a few touches, and the resulting factor is a record that brims with utter anguish and torment, two essential ingredients in any country song, let alone a George Jones song.

8. George Jones - "A Picture Of Me Without You"
Some have said that Sherrill pushed Jones to new vocal heights in the studio. Nowhere is that more apparent than this 1972 classic that Norro Wilson and George Richey specifically wrote for George. Interestingly enough, just a few years later, Richey would be feeling these lyrics as he married…Tammy Wynette.

7. George Jones - "A Girl I Used To Know"
Jack Clement’s lyrics provided the ultimate showcase for Jones in 1962. According to legendary radio personality Ralph Emery, Jones’ heartfelt version of this one was one of Ray Charles’ all-time favorite records. It’s easy to understand why.

6. George Jones - "White Lightning"
Lyrically, the Big Bopper composition is little more than a novelty tune, but Jones sounded as if he was having the time of his life in 1959 with the story of that magic liquid that his “Pappy” made back in the hills.

5. George Jones - "Choices"
Jones could have recorded it at any point in his life, but at the age of 67, the vocals about a man looking back on -- and taking ownership of -- his mistakes had an unusual poignancy to them, resulting in a Grammy Award for the man known as “Possum.”

4. George Jones - "She Thinks I Still Care"
One of the most quintessential George Jones songs is steeped in irony, as the singer sounds somewhat surprised that one would think anything about a man ringing an old love’s number, he plays the song in a somewhat sheepish manner -- until the final verse, when it’s apparent to everyone, even the singer, that his ex left a wound that isn’t going away anytime soon.

3. George Jones - "The Grand Tour"
Originally released in 1974, this is one song that we still listen to every now and then just to ask the question -- was it really THAT good? Every pain-drenched syllable reveals the answer, which we think you can guess with it’s placement here.

2. George Jones - "When The Grass Grows Over Me"
I wrestled with the idea of reversing songs one and two on this list of George Jones songs, I really did. And, to be totally honest with you, they are both hauntingly similar -- except this 1968 hit was totally in the first-person narrative. But, this song is perhaps the darkest Jones ever went. The song that sits in the number one position had Billy Sherrill’s production and a glorious melody that provided some beauty in death. This one -- with lyrics such as "I’ll be over you, when you’re standing over me" was pure sadness and brilliance.

1. George Jones - "He Stopped Loving Her Today"
Since its release in the spring of 1980, this song continually tops the list of “Country’s Greatest Songs” time and again. Is that so? Well, we can’t find any evidence that will refute that claim. Everything about it -- from Jones’ vocal to Sherrill’s genius production -- was perfect. We know it’s a classic, but try this -- pretend you have never heard it before, and take the song each line at a time. (She came back? They’re carrying him away? A wreath upon his door? Ohhhh….) Yep, the greatest George Jones record of all time, down to the haunting vocals of Millie Kirkham. We’d love to tell you there’s a flaw there somewhere, but seriously, it would be a damn lie. This record is that freaking perfect.