Jones Reigns at Ryman Despite Vocal Problems

The people came to worship, and they were not about to let the cracks in George Jones ’ fabled voice curb their adoration. “The Possum” packed Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium Sunday night (Oct. 21) with fans who cheered at the very mention of his name. Before Jones came on stage at 9 p.m., his harmony singer and frontman, Ron Gaddis, warned the crowd that Jones had played an outdoor show the day before and was slightly under the weather.

“I was so scared of letting you folks down,” Jones said later in the show. The 70-year-old Country Music Hall of Fame member, once derisively dubbed “No Show Jones” for missing concerts, repeatedly thanked his doctor for enabling him to perform. While Jones’ singing deficiencies were apparent, they did not seriously undermine what continues to be country music’s most magnificent and emotionally stirring instrument.

Barry Smith, Jones’ come-from-nowhere opening act, not only lived up to but eclipsed his glowing advance publicity. Jim Lauderdale , who plays Jones in the current Ryman production of Stand by Your Man: The Tammy Wynette Story, turned in a solid set of self-penned tunes to get the procedings rolling.

Entering to a standing ovation, Jones opened with “High Tech Redneck,” exclaiming as he ended, “I told you I’d be back.” His voice began to waver on the more demanding follow up, “Once You’ve Had the Best.” Jones praised the crowd at virtually every interval, working it up until it came time for him to utter the promise that always gets a big hand: “You all keep that up, and we might stay here until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning.”

In one of the evening’s less lovely moments, Jones pandered shamelessly to country music traditionalists by stoking their antipathy toward modern country music and those who perform it. “You’re not going to see any smoke come up from the stage,” he announced truculently. “And you’re not going to see anybody swinging from a rope.” It wasn’t clear if Jones was aiming his barbs at country’s most celebrated smoke-jumper and rope-swinger, Garth Brooks . But he did not sing “Beer Run,” the duet he recorded with Brooks and which also appears on Jones’ new album, The Rock. Jones is too great an artist to sully himself with small-mindedness.

After two more numbers — “The Race Is On” and “Bartender’s Blues” — Jones took a rest, but remained on stage, while his band, the Jones Boys, reeled out the old fiddle tune, “Black Mountain Rag.”

Jones then resumed commenting on the current state of country music, but this time, mercifully, with good humor. “Have you noticed,” he asked, “that you don’t hear songs about drinking and cheating? God knows they still go on. … If I was to leave out my drinking songs, I wouldn’t have a job to come to.”

He moved on with “Choices,” the song he refused to sing on the 1999 Country Music Association Awards show because the producers insisted he shorten it and then to such frolicsome fare as “Saints & Sinners,” “I’’ll Give You Something to Drink About” and “One Woman Man.” One the more serious side, he weighed in with “A Picture of Me Without You,” “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” and “You Ought to Be Here,” a song Roger Miller wrote especially for him.

As the show neared its end, Jones steamed through a medley that included snippets of “I’ll Share My World With You,” “Window Up Above,” “The Grand Tour,” “Walk Through This World With Me,” “White Lightning” and “She Thinks I Still Care.” He concluded his set with “He Stopped Loving Her Today” (which earned him a standing ovation) and the plucky “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair” (which had some of the Ryman’s usually staid ushers dancing in the balcony).

For the finale, Jones brought back his opening act, Smith, to lead the performers and audience in “God Bless the U.S.A.” Perhaps sensing that Jones had given enough in his hour and twenty minutes set, the fans did not press him for an encore.

Resplendent in a sequined, plum-hued suit, Lauderdale kicked off the musical festivities with his “Life by Numbers.” Backed by a tight five-piece band, he warmed up the room with a sampling of the hits he’s written for others as well as songs that have distinguished his own albums. His 11-song program included “I’m on Your Side,” “Whisper,” “If I Were You,” “What’s on My Mind” (which he sang with his co-writer, Warner Bros. recording artist Leslie Satcher), “The Goodbye Song,” plus the better-known “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me” (a high-charting duet for Patty Loveless and Jones), “Halfway Down” (another Loveless hit) and “Don’t Make Me Come Over There and Love You” (a hit for George Strait ). The high point was Lauderdale’s tribute to Jones, “The King of Broken Hearts.”

Because his material is so mixed and wide-ranging, Lauderdale has developed the affable stage presence of a singer/songwriter rather than the commanding presence of a confident vocal stylist. Whatever his tag, though, he’s an engaging entertainer.

Until a couple of months ago, Barry Smith was best known among Nashville’s music community as a luxury car dealer. Then Jones heard him sing and forthwith summoned him to go on tour. The tall Kentuckian had the house cheering and screaming with his first few notes. He began with Max D. Barnes’ and Harlan Howard ’s “My One and Only Love,” with his wife, Sheri Copeland, providing harmony. Every time his voice dipped into the bass range, the crowd roared.

Smith’s next offering was “Yesterday’s Gone,” a 1977 hit for Vern Gosdin . Larry Stewart, formerly of Restless Heart , and producer/songwriter Max T. Barnes joined Copeland for the harmony parts. An impressive vocalist in her own right and a veteran background singer for Ray Stevens , Copeland then took center stage to sing “The Sweetest Thing,” a cover of Juice Newton’s 1981 chart-topper. The whole troupe assembled for a rendition of the hymn “Softly and Tenderly.” And Smith closed the segment with the novelty tune “That’s Why I Sing This Way,” which boasts the refrain, “My mama used to whup me with a George Jones album/That’s why I sing this way.”

It was a notably imperfect show overall, not because of Jones’ wounded voice but because of all the tired rituals the audience had to endure. There was too much obsequious buttering-up of the fans, too much genuflecting to the Ryman as a sacred place to perform, too much breast-beating about the virtues of “traditional country” and too much mindless flag-waving. The result was less a triumph of music than a conquest by gestures.