George Jones, the greatest country singer of all time, was a cat with nine lives – at least.
He was the real thing; he sang what he knew. His own messy life, like an out-of-control carnival ride, is right there in those songs. Anyone who’s heard a Jones’ song would have to conclude so many other country singers, compared to that master, sound more or less like wannabes.
I’ve been listening to George Jones off and on all weekend. I had to borrow a bunch of his CDs from neighbor Rose Ann, the most loyal Jones fan I’ve ever met. She’s the one who crossed the street Friday to tell me the great man had died. I have a lot of Jones songs, but they are all on good-ole’ scratched vinyl albums, and my ancient record player is long gone.
In this overdue spring weather, it was enjoyable to sit on my deck and hear the one-and-only George Jones. Some of those tunes I hadn’t heard in years. They sound better than ever – a sure sign of songs that have reached classic status.
Like a lot of country music, some Jones songs are a bit corn-pone sappy. But Jones could take the hokiest song and make it a great listening experience because his raw emotions filtered through that extraordinary voice and his unique verbal phrasing. His ability to express so many unvarnished emotions – so direct they bring chills – was the source of Jones’ genius. A good example is He Stopped Loving Her Today, widely regarded as the all-time best country song. Let’s face it, it’s an unabashed tearjerker to the point of being morbidly sentimental. Jones, however, redeems it with his transcendent singing – his voice soaring and groaning in waves of pure emotion.
That voice! It’s a kind of clenched-teeth quavering that suddenly blooms in full force with grand tender emotion or erupts into a moan of grief-pain-regret. At times, it sounds as if Jones is almost sobbing rather than singing. It sounds, if you listen closely, like the sound of a man trying so hard not to fall apart. At times, the voice verges on a virtual howl of barely suppressed pain or anguish, but there’s always that vast tenderness for balance: sweet and sour.
Four times married, Jones sang so often about broken romances, fractured love, betrayal and bitterness. All those broken-hearted ballads, instead of being miserable litanies of failure, reinforce the importance of relationships – of what was lost or what was never gained. In fact, Jones’ bittersweet songs tell us more about true love, lost and found and unrequited, than thousands of trite syrupy love songs.
Jones, as they say in the music business, paid his dues. It’s amazing he made it to the age of 81. There were the legendary bouts with alcohol and drugs; breakdowns; hospitalizations; accidents; spells of virtual poverty; embattled marriages; all the bruises and abrasions of reckless living. It’s no wonder his is the voice of a wounded survivor from the battle of living. But humor was his saving grace, his survival mechanism. Even some of his downbeat songs shine with touches of humor – that kind of deadpan humor country writers and singers use to such good effect. For example, If the Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me, Her Memory Will.
I vividly recall with pleasure having a chance to interview Tammy Wynette in the mid-1980s. The interview took place in her luxurious travel bus outside the Runestone Arena in Alexandria. I asked her, “Tammy, do you still believe in that message of your great song about standing by your man?”
She chuckled, then said, “Well, Dennis, just look around. You don’t see George Jones anywhere in here, do you?”
We both cracked up laughing.
Despite their knock-down-drag-out feuds, Wynette and Jones continued to sing together many times for years after their divorce. That’s a testament to two great entertainers. They’d both paid their dues, and when it came time to sing astonishing duets together, they were ready and willing.
I, for one, am grateful for a half century of George Jones’ songs.