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Jonesing For the Real Stuff
by Donny Kutzbach
Country music's greatest voice still resounds
Here’s a game that I love to play withy friends—at least with those who know enough about great country music.
Imagine you had to carve a Mount Rushmore memorializing the legendary statesmen singers of country and western. Who would be on it?
By default, I always stick by Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
Of course there’s the too often unsung Roy Acuff. Then maybe you add Willie or Waylon. Then there’s Merle.
Of course, I’d have to chisel in the guy with arguably the greatest and most singular voice in the history of country music. The kid who rose up from nothing, out of the Big Thicket of Texas. The kid who starting singing in the street, leaving behind an impoverished youth to reign as the king of country music, only to throw it away with booze, drugs, missed gigs, and too many near-death experiences. Who came back from the edge, cleaned up, and now stands as an inspiring elder of the great downhome American music style.
Who else but the man called the Possum? Who else but George Jones?
Or as friend and unabashed fan Elvis Costello has quipped, “George Jones—who else could compare?”
Jones’s voice is a smooth, soaring tenor. His unparalleled gift for phrasing conveys the genuine bruise of heartache and the high lonesomeness that are the totems of fine country music arguably better than any other male singer the genre has known. Stylistically, he moved from rockabilly to straight-ahead country, ultimately settling into the spot as one of the finest arbiters of Billy Sherrill-produced “countrypolitan.” His string of country chart hits spans six decades and includes 14 number-one hits.
And if those songs about problems with women, too much drinking, and general hell-raising always had resonance and the ring of authenticity, it was for good reason.
For as much as Jones’ power as a singer is a thing of legend, it is a legend forever in danger of being overshadowed by his nearly mythological ability for getting into trouble. Witness his four marriages and his brushes with guns, arrests, the mob, and endless amounts of booze and cocaine.
His 1997 autobiography (co-written with country chronicler Tom Carter), I Lived to Tell It All, is a page-turner. Jones not only tells of his glorious rise to fame but candidly recounts every detail of his undoing. Included are the drag-out fights with third wife/duet partner/country superstar Tammy Wynette, getting a DUI after leading police on a chase on his lawnmower, and performing entire shows as Dee-Doodle, a Donald Duck-voiced alter ego who would come out during drug and alcohol benders.
His stories of extreme excess and bizarre tales from the dark side are rivaled only by those of another Jones admirer and friend: Keith Richards, who lovingly calls Jones “a piece of work.”
During those grim years, the Possum earned a new moniker, “No Show Jones,” for his practice of missing gigs. It finally all turned around in the early 1990s, when Jones, with the help of his fourth wife, Nancy, cleaned up, got sober, and got serious about making music again.
Since reestablishing his stature and reputation, Jones has become a fixture, continuing to put out albums and dueting with everyone from Emmylou Harris and Alan Jackson to Garth Brooks and the aforementioned Keith Richards, while earning multiple Grammys and a prestigious Kennedy Center Honor in 2008.
Jones has likewise shook off that “No Show” tag. As he approaches his 80th birthday this September, he is steadily showing up and performing dozens of shows a year for audiences that cross generations and simply need to hear that voice.
And that voice is still there. For all the wear of the years and the supposed toll that hard, wild living is said to take, Jones can still deliver.
What to expect from an evening with George Jones? A hot opening set from his backup group, the Jones Boys, before the still spry Possum takes the stage to deliver a show so packed with hits that they must often be truncated into medleys if he wants to fit them all in one night.
An evening with Jones will prove to everyone in the house that this is a man who deserves a spot on a country music Mt. Rushmore.
George Jones - Saturday, March 12, 7pm
The Riviera Theatre
67 Webster Street, North Tonawanda (692-2113 / www.rivieratheatre.org).
Once You've Had The Best...
A selected George Jones discography
Grand Old Opry’s Newest Star (1957)
This was the point where the rockabilly singer Thumper Jones officially became the country troubadour George. He wrote or cowrote every track on this debut, including the breakthrough hit “Why Baby Why.”
Sings Country And Western Hits (1962)
An interesting document, as Jones with his voice at its most refined tours the country songbook, doing right by Lefty Frizzell’s “If You Got the Money (I Got the Time) ” and offering the best version ever recorded of Don Gibson’s “Oh Lonesome Me.” (Sorry, Neil Young.)
Golden Ring (with Tammy Wynette) (1976)
Ultimately this was their breakup album, recorded as their marriage was falling apart and released post-divorce. Golden Ring is not only the most dramatic of the couple’s duet albums but unquestionably their best. Recorded by the usual suspect, countrypolitan avatar Billy Sherrill, you can hear the dissolution pour out of every track.
I Am What I Am (1980)
The title makes this sound like a confessional, and Jones recorded this album while mired in addiction. But the music doesn’t reflect his problems at all. In fact, this slick, Billy Sherrill-produced album boasts some of Jones’ finest work, like the maudlin but genius tour de force “He Stopped Loving Her Today” along with telltale titles like “I’ve Aged Twenty Years In Five” and “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will).”
Essential: Spirit of Country (1998)
As the title suggests, this album comprises 44 “can’t live without ’em” Jones tracks spanning a 40-year period. All the best are here, including “Color of the Blues,” “The Window up Above,” “Good Year for the Roses,” and “Tennessee Whiskey.”
Burn Your Playhouse Down—The Unreleased Duets (2008)
It’s understandable that singers line up to get on the mic with the greatest ever. This pick-and-mix collection from varied unheard collaborations, many dating back to 1994’s Bradley Barn Sessions, has some fine moments, like the funky read of “The Window up Above” with Leon Russell, and the playful “Burn Your Playhouse Down,” in which the Possum spars with Keith Richards.
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