The Ballad of George Jones, 1931-2013

A great American artist and icon has left the earth. Yesterday, country singer George Jones died in a Nashville hospital at the age of 81. Jones was a legend in country music, and he lived a life so dramatic, tumultuous, and full of heartbreak that it was a country song: from his (literal) born-in-a-log-cabin beginnings, through four (or was it five?) marriages, fortunes made and lost, career ups and downs, car crashes, arrests, lawsuits, tabloid infamy, and multiple trips in and out of rehab and the psych ward.

His greatness as an artist is taken as a given among lovers of country music, and his influence on country was profound. Yet, in reading responses to his death on the web, I’m struck by something of a disconnect between the reactions of country fans and musicians, who recognize Jones as one of country’s giants, and outsiders, whose reactions have been far more muted. Many are not sure what to make of the man and his legacy. On Twitter, one journalist asked whether Jones was worth a page one obituary. This startled me, but it was an honest question; he wasn’t trolling.

Part of the problem is that, even if you were curious enough to attempt to get a comprehensive introduction to Jones’ music, it’s been difficult to do so. His recordings span over 50 years on multiple record labels, and so far there has been no single compilation or boxed set that does not leave out some essential work.

But a larger part of the disconnect can be attributed to the fact that George Jones’ music always remained stubbornly within the country genre. Some rock musicians adored his work, but his most ardent fans tended to be Brits like Keith Richards, Elvis Costello, and Pete Townshend. Jones’ ambivalent (and that’s putting it mildly) attitude towards New York City did not help his cause, so far as his relationship with the cultural elite is concerned. Finally, unlike, say, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton or Willie Nelson, he never enjoyed crossover success with rock or pop audiences (which, truth be told, he never even attempted). And unlike Cash or Loretta Lynn, his life was never made into an Oscar-winning Hollywood movie. Yet, within country, he was more important than any of them.

Yesterday on Twitter, I said that George Jones was the greatest singer in country music, except for Hank Williams. But when you’re talking about country and you say “except for Hank Williams,” that’s kind of like saying “except for God.” Jones’ peers in the country music world were close to unanimous in considering him to be the greatest country music singer. Consider yesterday’s extraordinary outpouring of tributes from country musicians:

“The world has lost the greatest country singer of all time. Amen.”
— Merle Haggard

“My heart is absolutely broken. George Jones was my all time favorite singer and one of my favorite people in the world.”
— Dolly Parton

“I believe if you ask any singer who was the greatest country music singer of all time, they would say ‘George Jones’.”
— Barbara Mandrell

“THE Country Music singer of all time. The words ‘Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes’ has never been more true than today.”
— Ricky Skaggs

And there are many, many more tributes along those lines.

Because he was so important — and because I’m a shameless George Jones fangurl — I’m going to take the opportunity today to explore his musical legacy. I’m posting YouTubes of an even dozen of his best songs, plus links to many more (and trimming it down even to this extent was painful). But attention must be paid. The already-fans can re-experience the storehouse of treasures he left behind, and the not-yet-fans can get their George Jones 101.

I’ll kick it off with his most iconic song, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” George Jones recorded great music in a variety of country genres, but he was best known as a balladeer. As with so many of the greatest country singers, most notably Hank Williams and Tammy Wynette, somehow, the heartbreak seemed baked into his voice. His singing seemed so casual and intimate, but at the same time, it went deep. What other American popular singers in any genre was so exquisitely moving, so galvanically powerful, sounded these kinds of depths? In my opinion, it’s a very select group indeed. You’ve got Jones, Hank Williams, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Al Green, maybe Ray Charles. And of course, there’s the Sinatra of the In the Wee Small Hours period — who, in his way, was Jones’ psychic twin when it came to expressing male pain and vulnerability. Sinatra, btw, said that Jones was “the second greatest white singer in America” (there was no question about who he considered to be number one).

Moving on . . . let’s back up a bit. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” was a career peak and a prime example of Jones’ mature style. But though from the outset his records were pretty fabulous, it took him some time before he became George Jones. His early stuff was hard-core honky tonk, and it bore the unmistakable influence of Lefty Frizzell and, especially, Hank Williams. He really seems to be channeling Hank in this tune, “Burn Your Playhouse Down.” This classic kiss-off song was co-written by Jones (he wrote many of his early songs, but at some point in the 60s gave up the songwriting). Check out the awesome lyrics: “I”ve got a-achin’ in my heart, arson on my mind/ I’m gonna burn your playhouse down.” Jones’ final studio album, released in 2008, included a version of the song — this time as a duet with fellow improbable-survivor-who’s-had-more-lives-than-a-cat Keith Richards.

“Why Baby Why,” from 1955, is another classic in the honky tonk genre, and was Jones’ first bona fide hit. If you like this you may want to check out a couple of other terrific early songs in this style, “No Money in this Deal” and “Eskimo Pie”

Now this one, “How Come It,” is a real curiosity. In the 50s, Jones experimented with rockabilly, recording a couple of sides under the pseudonym “Thumper Jones.” The rap on Jones’ rockabilly is that it was a misbegotten failure, and Jones himself apparently hated these recordings so much that he would refuse to sign copies for fans. But I think this is pretty fantastic. It’s a wild ride of a record that’s unlike any other rockabilly I’ve ever heard, and it features some killer guitar work. Another of the Thumper Jones rockabilly records, “Rock It”, is also pretty darn good.

Now we come to another early hit, 1959’s “White Lightning.” This recording features an aspect of Jones that has curiously been neglected in the obituaries I’ve read: his fun side. The man had a robust, frequently goofy sense of humor, and it’s on full display here. Other good George Jones songs in this novelty/fun genre include “Who Shot Sam?”, “I’d Rather Switch Than Fight”, and “The King Is Gone (So Are You).”

Speaking of “White Lightning,” it’s well-known that Jones had a monster drinking problem. Jones was one of a long line of great alcoholic country singers that included (of course) Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Ira Louvin, Johnny Cash, and Gram Parsons. By the late 50s his alcohol abuse was already out of control — it reportedly took him 83 takes to record an acceptable version of “White Lightning.” Many of Jones’ signature songs are about drinking and alcoholism. Among the greatest is “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)” (and if that’s not a brilliant title for a country song, I don’t know what is).

Here’s another of Jones’ classic ballads, “Good Year for the Roses.” This one may be my favorite Jones record in this style. Elvis Costello loved it so much that he recorded his own version of it. (Elvis, btw, wrote a great country song that he and Jones duetted on, “Stranger in the House”).

Jones recorded many a great divorce song; “The Grand Tour” is one of the best. This record, like many other of Jones’ 70s and 80s ballads, was produced by Billy Sherrill. Truth be told, Sherrill’s heavily orchestrated sound often feels overproduced, at least to my taste. I prefer the sparer sound his first producer, Pappy Daily, developed — it’s a great match for this exquisite George Jones vocal, for example. And “She Thinks I Still Care” is another classic Daily/Jones heartbreaker. But there’s no denying the power and brilliance of Jones’ work with Sherrill.

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Duetting, particularly male-female duets, is a country music tradition. Jones recorded many outstanding duets, including several memorable collaborations with Melba Montgomery, such as this one; and this wonderful late-career duet with Dolly Parton. But there is no question that his most perfect duetting partner of all was the great Tammy Wynette. Like George, Tammy possessed one of those voices that can just pierce right through you. She was his third wife, he was her third husband, and their ill-starred bad romance was the stuff of country music legend. The passion of their relationship that comes through in the music they made together is practically visceral. Here’s one of their biggest hits, “Golden Ring.”

This one, “We’re Not the Jet Set,” is also classic George and Tammy. Other great recordings in their catalog together include “Near You” and this song, which I included on the mix tape I played at my wedding reception.

Jones’ growing alcoholism was among the key reasons his marriage to Wynette unraveled. There was no question that, into the 70s and 80s, his substance abuse was getting increasingly scary, and was impeding his ability to function at every level. He started skipping so many shows to disappear into drug and alcohol binges that he developed the nickname “No Show Jones,” (and, relentless self-mythologizer that he was, he even recorded a song with that title). When he did show up, he sometimes got so wasted that he sang entire concerts using a bizarre Donald Duck voice (really!).

“Drunk George Jones” stories are legion. Here’s Wikipedia’s version of the most famous one:

Jones recalled [second wife] Shirley making it physically impossible for him to travel to Beaumont, located 8 miles away, and buy liquor. Because Jones would not walk that far, she would hide the keys to each of their cars they owned before leaving. She did not, however, hide the lawn mower keys. Jones recollects being upset at not being able to find any keys before looking out the window and at a light that shone over their property. He then described his thoughts, saying: “There, gleaming in the glow, was that ten-horsepower rotary engine under a seat. A key glistening in the ignition. I imagine the top speed for that old mower was five miles per hour. It might have taken an hour and a half or more for me to get to the liquor store, but get there I did.”

Now that, my friends, is an alcoholic.

The lawn mower story has become a part of the George Jones legend, so much so that he re-enacted versions of it in a couple of his music videos (such as this one). But though later he often played it for laughs, Jones’ substance abuse problems (which by the 70s included not only alcohol but cocaine and amphetamines) had become life-threatening. His weight slipped below 105 pounds. For a time, he was homeless and lived out of his car. This YouTube video, which includes real footage of a drunk, coked up, f—ed up George Jones being stopped for DUI, is disturbing and painful to watch.

But just when it looked like he was committing slow-motion suicide, a miracle happened: George Jones got sober. He credited much of the turn-around to his fourth (or, depending on how you count, maybe his fifth) wife, Nancy Sepulvado. With Sepulvado, he finally got it right; the pair were married from 1983 until Jones’ death. At some point in the 80s, Jones went to rehab and cleaned up his act. He didn’t remain completely sober — there was at least one serious relapse in 1999, resulting in a drunk driving accident that nearly killed him. But aside from that incident, there were no other public indications (that I am aware of) that he fell off the wagon.

His newfound sobriety proved an inspiration to many. George Jones had been one of the most notorious, incorrigible drunks in America. As Jones notes in this interview, he and his wife received letters from recovering alcoholics who quit drinking because they believed “If George Jones can do it, so I can I.”

His later recordings reflected his sober lifestyle. His song “Choices” demonstrated the hard-won humility and honesty about himself that he discovered after he finally put the plug in the jug. As a kind of end-of-career summa, I find it infinitely more appealing than, for example, the obnoxious blowhardism of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” (and I say that as a huge Sinatra fan). .

Jones’ voice remained in remarkably good form at the end of his life, especially considering the abuse the poor man had inflicted on his body for so long. There was life in the old man yet, as this rollicking performance shows.

George Jones’ music has been important to me. As I mentioned, we played one of his songs at my wedding. Two years ago, when my ten-year marriage (and 13-year relationship) broke up, I was devastated. For a many months, I couldn’t listen to love songs at all. Happy love songs would cause overwhelming feelings of grief over the love that was forever lost, and the sad ones would hit me so hard the pain would stun me. For a while, the only type of music I could listen to was punk rock. As a friend sagely observed, “There are no love songs in punk rock.”

With time, I became able to listen to other types of music again without falling apart. George Jones’ music was there for me; it helped to me mourn, and then to begin to heal. I must have cried oceans of tears listening to his songs. It seemed like no one who ever lived ever had a more thorough understanding of my pain and heartbreak. Listening to him was catharsis, and it also offered a strange kind of hope. Not only had he been through it all, he had lived to tell the tale.

I’ll close with one more recording, this one of yet another country genre Jones had mastered: gospel. The record is “I’ll Fly Away.” It’s a song I love, and I’ve never heard a more affecting version of it than this one. R.I.P. on God’s celestial shore, George Jones.

UPDATES: Scott Lemieux notes that Nick Tosches’ classic Texas Monthly profile of Jones is now available online. I strongly recommend it — it’s essential reading for anyone interested in the man.

Scott also mentions something I neglected to deal with in this post, which is George Jones’ long and ugly history of violence against women. The man was many things, and one of the things he was, was your standard-issue wife-beating drunk. That Jones had himself been a victim of domestic violence (when he was a child, he was regularly beaten by his alcoholic father) helps to explain his behavior, but it in no way minimizes or excuses it.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee