Country legend lives on in songs of pain and joy

George-Jones-608x416

Hidden somewhere within the boxes, drawers, and shelves that house my ludicrously over-sized music collection, there exists one of my most treasured possessions: a battered cassette tape, the case long since lost and the printing smudged beyond recognition, of George Jones, circa-1980, singing his hits from decades past.

Though I own CDs with the original versions of those songs, it’s this collection that I return to again and again.

By the time he re-recorded those songs, Jones’ personal life was in a downward trajectory driven by divorce, alcohol and drug addiction. Since his first  hit  single in 1959, Jones had traveled thousands of miles touring across America and had come even further creatively and personally.

Following the end of his marriage to Tammy Wynette, Jones’ equally talented duet partner, the man who began his career imitating his heroes Hank Williams and Roy Acuff had transformed into a vision of the damaged romantic loner, a practitioner of self-abuse as artistic statement.

His songs, more often than not, were haunted by a man walking through an empty house or slowly killing himself with a bottle. Listening to these songs, there’s an overwhelming sense that Jones is simply documenting his own life.

Born September 13, 1931 in East Texas to an alcoholic father and a devoutly religious mother who both found comfort in music, the young Jones absorbed the musical influences that surrounded his home on the edge of the Louisiana bayous: gospel, blues, early country, and bluegrass. By age 11 he was busking on the streets for change. By 20 he was divorced from his first wife and had joined the U.S. Marine Corps.

Following his stint in the service, Jones headed for the honkytonks to employ the gifts he had developed, in part, through the insistence of his father, who would drunkenly beat his young son when his performances didn’t measure up to expectations.

Though his earliest recordings are imitative of his heroes at the time, Jones quickly developed a style that combined gospel influenced note bending and openly emotional phrasing with a voice that could cry, shiver and moan like a pedal steel guitar. Every line, every word was imbued with nuance and significance, as Jones bit down hard on unexpected words or phrases and stretched others until they sang with new meaning. Nothing was phoned in. Nothing was taken for granted.

Though he will always be remembered as a country singer, a quick look at Jones’ discography reveals an artist who could have just as easily flourished in the world of jazz, pop, or rock. He was simply that good.

As his voice deepened and gained texture with age, Jones’ music moved further and further from traditional country. With the help of innovative producer Billy Sherrill, Jones developed musical settings throughout the 1970s that matched the emotive power of his voice, using strings and other instruments not common to country records of the day to create a pop influenced yet darkly gothic series of recordings.

Though his career and health had fallen into disarray by the end of the 1970s—as evidenced by his moniker ‘No Show Jones’—in 1980 the man who had been given up for dead by many in the music industry released what would become his signature song, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which earned Jones Country Music Association awards for best male vocal and top single. He also earned a Grammy for best male country vocal performance.

Paradoxically, at this point Jones was in perhaps the worst shape of his life. A video from 1980 shows an ornery Jones being handcuffed after being pulled over for drunk driving in Nashville. After flaring in rage at the TV cameraman, Jones is shown sitting in the back of the police cruiser, head lowered, a mixture of shame and resignation playing across his haggard face.

Some of the darkest drinking songs Jones, or anyone else, ever recorded, songs with titles like “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me,” and “Still Doing Time,” originated from this era. This was also the period when Jones revisited his early hits, when that tape that has stayed with me since I was 17 years old was recorded.

Even in his worst days of derangement, Jones always kept his sense of humor, along with his appreciation for high drama and the absurd. This is, after all, the man who capped his descent into self-destructive insanity by creating an alter ego who spoke in the voice of Donald Duck and who once drove a lawn mower eight miles to a liquor store.

Remarrying in 1983 to a woman who must possess the patience of a saint, Nancy Ford Sepulvado, Jones slowly began to crawl his way out from beneath years of addiction. He signed with MCA Records in 1990 and began a successful run of recordings. In 1992 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2008 he received the nation’s highest arts award, the Kennedy Center Honor for lifetime achievement.

One of his final albums, 1999’s Cold Hard Truth, contains moments of genuine greatness that rival anything from his past. That he recorded it in the middle of recovering from a near fatal car crash, the result of a drunken misstep after 13 years of sobriety, makes the title track’s chorus all the more telling:

“I’ve had choices

Since the day that I was born

There were voices

That told me right from wrong

If I had listened

No I wouldn’t be here today

Living and dying

With the choices I’ve made”

Like all great singers, George Jones didn’t simply perform songs, he inhabited them, rendering them deeply personal and simultaneously universal. The man never hid his problems, never shrank from the shadows, and was never shy about laughing at it all.

And that’s what I hear in those old songs on that old tape: life in all its many colored complexities—the good, the horrific, and the down right ridiculous

All of which is just a longwinded way of saying that when George Jones passed away on April 26 in a Nashville hospital, the world lost not only the greatest country music singer of all time but one of the finest vocal artists of any genre to ever grace this earth.

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