50 Years Ago: George Jones Records Country’s Saddest Song

Over the years, something nearing universal consensus from both country music fans and historians alike has settled upon the idea that “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones is the greatest country music song in history. Written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam, and released by George Jones in 1980, it revitalized The Possum’s career, and is still cherished and revered today.

“He Stopped Loving Her Today” is certainly a sad song in itself; that’s for sure. But it’s another George Jones song that nears a similar universal consensus as the saddest song in country music history. And perhaps the only reason it’s not considered the greatest song itself is because George Jones would outdo himself years later.

50 years ago today (January 22nd, 1974), George Jones stepped into Columbia Studio B in Nashville and recorded the song “The Grand Tour.” Written by Norro Wilson, Carmol Taylor, and George Richey, you will be hard pressed to find a song in country music or anywhere else that encapsulates and chronicles the deep sense of loss that a brokenhearted man feels as he mopes through a home devoid of love and family.

“The Grand Tour” is considered one of country music’s foremost divorce songs, in a genre known for tackling divorce like no other. As the narrator walks through the house speaking in the past tense, you can feel the pain coming through the voice of George Jones in a way that stokes deep emotion. It isn’t just the lyrics, but George’s performance that matches the lonesome steel guitar and the Billy Sherrill-produced string section that takes “the song”The Grand Tour” from devastatingly sad to a country music masterpiece.

But as some have pointed out over the years, “The Grand Tour” can be interpreted differently by different people. Though the first three verses seem to clearly map out the aftermath of a divorce—or at least the spouse leaving—the fourth verse leaves some thinking that there might be more to the story.

There’s her rings, all her things
And her clothes are in the closet
Like she left them when she tore my world apart
As you leave, you’ll see the nursery
Oh, she left me without mercy
Taking nothing but our baby, and my heart

With the wife leaving all of her rings and clothes behind, and then a nursery and baby being referenced, some believe the song could be about the narrator’s wife dying during child birth. Though this is certainly an interesting interpretation, the sternness of lyrics such as “she tore my world apart” and “she left me without mercy” seem to imply that the wife’s exit from the narrator’s life was voluntary. Normally, a bereaved husband wouldn’t be so bitter against his dearly departed wife.

But like many great songs, the lyricism allows “The Grand Tour” to be interpreted differently to different people, and open to the imagination of the audience to be molded to their personal experiences and world view, making the song feel more intimate to the beholder.

“The Grand Tour” was very significant for the career of George Jones, and for country music. Similar to “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “The Grand Tour” put George Jones back at #1 on the country charts after an extended drought of being locked out of the top spot (22 singles in total). It quickly became one of George’s signature songs that he regularly performed in concert, and it’s cited commonly as one of the greatest examples of the genius behind the Countrypolitan production style of Billy Sherrill.

There are also a couple of interesting tidbits about the song. One of the co-writers was George Richey, who was Tammy Wynette’s husband after she divorced George Jones. Reportedly, Jones didn’t like Richey, and Wynette’s daughters have claimed Ritchey was abusive and manipulative towards Tammy. Richey also worked as her manager for many years. According to some, friction between George Jones and George Richey began well before Tammy Wynette married Richey. But Jones knew a good song when he heard it, and cut “The Grand Tour” anyway.

Though it’s often glossed over in history, Aaron Neville recorded “The Grand Tour” in 1993. Despite being an R&B artist, Neville charted a Top 40 hit in country with the song (#38), and was even nominated for the Grammy’s Best Male Country Vocal Performance for it in 1994.

What’s so great about country music is how it encapsulates universal truths and things that humans feel no matter the time, the place, or the era. Even 50 years later, the sense of loss captured in the George Jones performance of “The Grand Tour” is something unparalleled in popular American music.

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