By 1974, George Jones had already had quite the volatile career — riding high on a long string of top-10 hits, being reduced to living in his car outside of Jasper, Texas, and hitting every conceivable point between. The ’70s opened with mostly misses for Jones, including releases with his new and equally famous wife Tammy Wynette, a few moderate charters, and a gospel LP few remember.
His media-scrutinized marriage was fast unraveling, and Jones had resumed drinking, this time mixing alcohol with an ever-growing list of illicit substances. It’s amazing, then, to note that just as he was about to fall from the pinnacle of success, he made what would arguably be the finest record of his career.
The Grand Tour opens with the title track. That lonely solo voice, just above a sad whisper and accompanied only by a tentative few notes on a piano, is so naked and raw in comparison to how a country song is supposed to start, it’s almost shocking. The whole band shuffles in soon behind, in a cool and familiar way. But it’s those scant opening seconds, and the few times when the arrangement breaks down to that solitary voice again, that even the casual listener is drawn in close by the emotion Jones pours out in just a few words.
With paper-thin courage, he casually paints a starkly remembered still-life of a man on the very precipice of his own ability to deal with the daily reminders of his aching heart. By the final couplet, his voice soars over the sweet strings and backup singers to a final crescendo of hopeless loss and complete regret. In the sort of irony one only finds in real country music, this title track, chock-full of heartbreak and love gone cold, was co-written by the very man (George Ritchie) to whom Jones would soon lose his wife.
There were other great numbers on the session besides the big downer at the front. Producer Billy Sherrill gets credit for using strings and backing vocalists (the Jordanaires) all to best effect. Johnny Paycheck’s “Once You’ve Had The Best” charted at #3, and “Pass Me By (If You’re Only Passing Through)” and “Borrowed Angel” are minor classics that hold up quite well.
“Private Life”, the closing track, may be a throwaway, but lyrics about a celebrity-starved public clamoring for bad news about their heroes are just as topical now as they were then. Indeed, looking back through the filter of history, it could be easy to read too much into the lyrical content of this album. Jones and Wynette divorced soon after, and by all accounts Jones then descended into a spiral of substance abuse and failing to show up at his own concerts. It was a self-exiled dark hole, the place Jones could well have been describing in the title track.