George JonesIssue: Section:
george jones was almost my first concert. it happened like this: i had a little yellow transistor radio shaped like a coffee mug. after lights out i would connect up the white earpiece and search the AM dials til i dropped off to sleep or i heard my parents coming up the steps.
one night i came across a piece of music at once totally new and totally familiar, and altogether thrilling. it rocked my world so hard that i had to find out what celestial being was responsible for its creation. i knew enough to categorize it as country music. and i knew that my dad had an expansive knowledge of the medium. so i hummed a few bars and mumbled a few lines the next day. he correctly identified it as "don't ever cuss that fiddle" by willie and waylon.
i guess my enthusiasm for the song excited my dad in some way. it was an admission that we shared a common passion. and that set off a dialogue about country music that continues to this day.
he introduced me to the greats (and not-so-greats) and exposed me to a tradition that even then was on its way into the dustbin of history. i can never repay him in kind for tutoring me on the subject of one of america's original art forms, but i did get points for turning him on to dwight yoakam before he was a megastar ("sounds like somebody's been hanging around bakersfield," was his astute observation).
my dad guided me as i built a tasteful record collection, mostly by identifying songs and artists i liked from the radio.
the first artist that i could identify by myself 100% of the time was george jones.
he was The Voice.
waylon (my undisputed champion and enduring hero) himself said, "if we all could sound like we wanted to, we'd all sound like george jones."
the natural timbre. plus the sweet vibrato—neither too much nor too little. plus the range, from glowing baritone to flaring tenor in one line. add to that the modulation, from a whisper to a howl, often in one word, george jones remained crystal clear. plus the cadence of miles davis or ella fitzgerald. all of it multiplied by the ballsy phrasing of sinatra or willie, where he would lay off entering a line until it was almost too late, then swoop in to make you think there really was no other way the line could have gone.
the possum employed some serious voodoo math when he opened his mouth.
and the restraint. i sometimes get the impression that the entire universe is being torn to shreds inside george jones’s chest, and only a superhuman effort on the part of his neck, throat, jaws and lips can turn the rending into something comprehensible to human ears.
his voice was an extraordinary machine capable of corralling a stampede of raw contradictory human emotions and turning the whole dusty chaotic fury into one elegant show horse that he then rode effortlessly across each syllable. in "if drinking don't kill me (her memory will)", no one has ever heard the word "kill" pronounced like that. it contains all the nuances of death by dissolution in one drawled syllable. the way he hits the word "she" in "she thinks i still care" tells you without a doubt that this guy cannot let go.
the guy had a gift.
my dad heartily approved of my fascination with george jones. "the ol' Possum," he would remark knowingly every time i correctly identified a george jones tune. i never understood what that meant. until i bought my first george jones record. right there on the cover was the guy, The Voice, the legend... and the fucker looked as much like a possum as a human being could and still move on two legs. beady little eyes, sloping forehead, double chin, and the sharpest, most incredible upturned possum-snout of a nose... he wasn't much to look at, but i didn't care as long as he kept singing.
so, i was understandably geeked out when i found myself sitting next to my dad in the grand old Louisville Gardens, waiting to see The Voice live. my dad was, and is, an incredible tightwad, so for him to fork over money to take his eldest son to something as nonessential and frivolous as a concert was a momentous occasion. i can only guess that it was an extra special birthday present. i don't remember.
i do remember that time dragged as i focused on the stage curtains, looking for any movement or the slightest indication that george and his band were about to materialize.
what materialized instead was a guy in a suit just like my dad wore. he looked sick and unaccustomed to speaking in public. he stammered something to the auditorium and hustled off stage. the crowd groaned, stood and headed for the exits.
i had no idea what was going on. i heard the guy on the other side of my dad say to him, "no-show jones." to which my dad replied, "no-show jones."
this was about 1977, around the height of george jones's direst battles with alcohol and cocaine. the guy lived hard, according to legend, and didn't let that get in the way of contractual obligations and professional reputation. sometimes he wasn't fit to play. sometimes was getting more frequent around the time we tried to see him.
honestly, i never held it against the possum.
my tastes were evolving anyway, and there was something about his hair and those awful gaudy suits that country stars were required to wear that struck me as unseemly for a young dood aspiring to cool to admit to liking. i could admire and emulate willie and waylon without shame. i could even go briefly crazy for KISS.
but, in the blink of an eye, i was being crushed in the pit at a clash concert, watching suicidal tendencies dress down a frat boy heckler at the historic jockey club, then an eyelash of a moment later i was across the river bearing witness to the tribal psychosis of the butthole surfers.
i never turned The Voice off, mind you.
but, in the interim, country music had changed. the radio had turned The Voice off.
around 1983, with the saintly intercession of his fourth wife, the possum had gone clean and sober. he was still vibrant and producing classic music. but a new regime of marketers had taken over the nashville music industry, and george jones and a raft of pioneering country stars couldn't be heard. someone crunched the numbers and determined that they didn't appeal to the correct demographic, i guess.
it would be too easy to say that the hybridization with pop corrupted real country music. but, as with any artform, country is always growing and evolving, and has always incorporated contemporary sounds into its canon. hell, back in the late 50's george jones caught flak for "white lightnin" because it sounded an awful lot like that dreaded rockabilly stuff.
slick production values? the centralization of the recording industry? MTV? corporate comodification and the need for increasing predictability to keep the shareholders happy?
i’m not sure.
the subject matter remained pretty much steady. i maintain that there are really only five songs in all of country music. (to be fair, i think there are only 8 songs in all of music.) and the singers that got airplay seemed to be saying the same things that george and hank and dolly and waylon and johnny and loretta and merle had always said: 1. i am so lonesome. 2. i'm drifting/traveling/on the road 3. i'm not ashamed of my heritage 4. i want you. or 5. let’s party.
i could never quite put my finger on it, but by 1988 i had given up on country music radio. i still had my vinyl when i needed the genuine article.
i was thinking about all this the other night, a few days after The Voice passed, while smoking a cigarette in front of the Ryman Auditorium, the original home of The Grand Ol Opry, right here in downtown nashville, music city USA. i figured they would have the flags at half mast or something, at least. i mean, one of the cornerstones of the industry that put this dumpy burg on the map, one of the first (arguably THE first) true country superstars had died at the remarkable (for him) age of 81.
it's business as usual here
commerce street is aflutter with suburbanites, as it has been since the commodity of "country music" began trading so lucratively.
apparently the interests behind the rebranding of country music, and its capital nashville, made a winning bet.
their gamble paid off, judging from the affluence i saw downtown.
as in any other city that experiences a marked upswing in its fortunes, gentrification follows. but the gentrification i see on the streets of nashville has a decidedly suburban feel. given all the money they need, these upwardly mobile strivers don’t seek to distinguish themselves with bold individual gestures or creative statements. rather they seek to acquire the trappings of everyone else who has all the money they need.
all the women have the same hairstyle, a tamed, more natural version of the high hair of the Dallas era. they all wear the same leggings with the same print tops covering their butts. all the guys step from their SUVs (that have never hauled anything more substantial than a lacrosse team, and certainly never venture into the axle-deep mud seen in some commercials) with their loafers shined, their polo collars starched and their expensive sunglasses on the backs of their heads.
the only outward sign that this is nashville and not any suburban mall in any other town in the country is the higher than usual number of cowboy boots to be seen. you can spot the hayseeds in the big city for a wild night by their genuine, honest-to-god shit kickers. but that’s not what i’m talking about. i’m talking about the cowboy boots the affluent women wear.
i mean, you would have to call them cowboy boots, i guess, for lack of any other approximate term. they appear to be leather. they don’t lace up. they have a heel and come up at least to the calf. but it’s easy to see that these boots didn’t come from the feed store or the tack shop or even the Ariat outlet. these things came from Urban Outfitters or the mall or wherever else it is that fashionable women buy their styles across the homogenized country...
and that’s when it hits me.
Country Music Hall of Famer. enshrined in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. stone cold badass gun slinging songwriter with, like, 13 number one hits under his belt, including the CMA’s song of the year in both 1980 AND 1981, george jones’s “he stopped loving her today”.
i am not alone in saying that “he stopped loving her today” is a top candidate for the greatest country song ever written. some have argued that it is among the greatest songs of any type, and i agree.
it’s transcendent in its emotion and depth and economy. and it has a talkie part, which i admit i am a sucker for.
give it a listen:
now dry your eyes and listen to another of bobby braddock’s number one hits. this piece of crap sat at the top of the CMA charts for five weeks in 2005:
now, as far as i know, bobby braddock did not suffer a debilitating stroke or any other serious brain trauma between 1980 and 2005. i mean the man no ill will. he is a pro. this is how he makes the dough that pays the bills: he writes songs that resonate with people.
technically, the two songs fall into two of the categories suitable for a country song. george jones is in his wheelhouse here: “i am so lonesome.” the possum may have strutted around in the other four types, but his castle was in #1. and the toby keith song could be shoehorned into “3. i am not ashamed of my heritage.” but, here’s the crucial distinction: the heritage is no longer a rural upbringing or a small town history or an agrarian way of life. instead it’s the heritage of the suburban acquisition culture, complete with the self-absorption and fixation on petty first-world problems.
again, to be clear: bobby braddock is not the problem. secretly, i think he wrote this offal as a joke, as an exercise to show how ridiculous a white country singer would seem if he attempted to swagger through a boastful rap.
i don’t think toby keith got the joke.
and the consumers, the suburbanites who listen to the shitty country music stations in their impeccable SUVs with their sunglasses on the backs of their heads, i don’t think they got the joke either. i’m afraid that they took it as an anthem for their breed, the narcissistic hen-pecked soccer dad who toils at an insurance agency and feels unappreciated for his sacrifices.
again, pretty much first-world concerns here.
petty in comparison to the universal emotions of heartbreak and obsession and loss in braddock’s earlier hit, i’m thinking as i head toward broadway.
i figure if there is any place in downtown nashville that is mourning george jones tonight, it will be Ernest Tubbs Records. it is the premiere source for all things recorded in the realms of country, western and bluegrass.
Ernest Tubb (ET) was known as “the texas troubador”. he is often heralded as the father of honky tonk music. beginning in the fifties, he was a regular on The Grand Ol Opry here at the Ryman Auditorium. after the Opry finished broadcasting, ET would host an all night jamboree at this record shop up on broadway. (when the Opry moved out to the burbs, to the new OPRYLAND, the jamboree moved with it.)
as a kid i met Ernest Tubb. he had performed at the Opry and was greeting people sitting on the steps in the Ryman foyer. presumably he was about to head up to the jamboree.
he laughed a lot when he chatted with my dad. he complimented my sister’s long hair and put his hand on my shoulder when my dad said i was a big fan and would love an autograph. ET looked up at my dad, then squarely in my eyes. i think he wanted to know if my dad was using me because he was too embarrassed to ask for an autograph himself. ET asked me, “can you sang a little ET to me?”
that seemed like a reasonable, common enough request at the time, so i warbled out “i’m walkin the floor over yoooOu. can’t sleep a wink and that is truuUe...”
ET slapped my shoulder and said, “you are gonna put me out of a job, son!”
he signed a Grand Ol Opry brochure and we went on our way.
i reach the record shop about an hour before closing. i’m happy to see that it’s packed. a george & tammy (wynette, wife #4) duet issues from the house stereo. most people have their hands full of george jones records, CDs and DVDs. i guess that’s a suitable form of mourning in our consumer culture, i think. george didn’t share his unique gift for altruistic purposes, after all. he had to maintain his fleet of cars and the mowers he used to keep the grounds of his suburban mansion tidy.
i mill around with the crowd for a minute, literally just kind of body surfing the narrow aisles with the flow of human traffic.
and then i see it in a doorway. i get a glimpse of the possum’s face on a flyer of some sort taped to some kind of candle holder. i jostle my way closer and find that it is a metal sconce about two and a half feet tall, topped with an american flag candle. it sits on a flat base, so the effect is that of uncle sam’s top hat on fire.
there are plenty of people documenting the memorial, all of them silent, which i found satisfying. the rest of the store is noisy with multiple conversations and discussions, but here in the eddy around The Voice’s candle, everyone falls quiet.
between the commercial success and the quiet respect of the flame, i deem that george is being properly grieved at least in one spot in downtown nashville, a town built on an industry that he shaped so profoundly.
i head back toward the hotel.
i’m smoking as i pass the Ryman again, an exceedingly polite couple stops me. they are wearing alarming argyle sweaters, funny shoes and ironically dorky eyeglasses. the guy asks if he can buy a cigarette. i tell him no, but i will be happy to roll one for him.
he’s chatty and solicitous. i answer curtly and roll quickly. i don’t feel much like talking.
i hand him the cigarette. he introduces himself as jason. she shakes my hand and says she is lisa. he asks for a light.
jason seems compelled to entertain me after such a great kindness, i suppose. or something.
he asks where i’m from.
when i tell him louisville, he waxes poetic about shows he has seen there. for a skinny hipster, the kid has pretty good taste.
lisa volunteers that they just got out of a Band of Horses show at the Ryman.
i’ve heard of those guys, and say as much.
then i ask, “so they’re good live?”
“god yesssss,” she says, then adds, “and they get better every tour!”
“so, y’all are longtime fans?” i ask jason. i admit i am being a little snarky, Band of Horses has been a national act for, like, five whole years.
“oh,” he says, “the band came with the relationship.” he points at lisa. lisa swings her arms. then he adds, “this was my first time. it was really moving... of course i would tell her that, but i mean it... i was really... moved.”
“that is really great to hear,” i say, and i mean it. i am smiling.
there is a peaceful silence in our little triangle.
finally i clap jason on the shoulder and say, “so good to meet y’all. best of luck.”
and as i walk off, i tell them, “you make a pretty pair.”