His was a voice of kerosene teardrops about to burst into a raging fire. When George Jones sang a song, there was never any doubt that he committed completely to whatever emotion — usually one of raw ache, unfiltered regret, unspeakable torment — the song held.
And he could pick ’em. “Window Up Above,” “Good Year for the Roses,” “The Grand Tour,” “Walk Through This World With Me,” “If My Heart Had Windows” were all trenchant moments in the caverns of the human heart. Even his novelty songs were world class, be it the hiccupping “White Lightning,” the horse track metaphoric “The Race Is On” or, in later years, the feisty all-star “I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair.”
Still, there are few songs sadder than “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” the three-minute, 12-second Bobby Braddock/Curly Putman song of a love that would not die — until the broken hearted found the grave that’s decimated more late night Wurlitzer jukeboxes. Bleary-eyed in the flickering neon, the song that boasts “he’d underlined in red every single ‘I love you'” was made all the more wrenching by Jones’ ability to vocally burn you with cigarettes.
Searing, indelible, undeniable. When someone heard George Jones sing, they never forgot. In part because he lived as hard as he sang those classic country songs.
Raised along the South Texas Gulf Coast, the Pentecostal child of a truck driver and pipe fitter, he found music early and began singing on street corners, revivals and anywhere people would listen. Reputedly being told by Hank Williams Sr., “Quit trying to sing like Roy Acuff and start singing like yourself,” Jones carved out one of the most emotionally brazen styles of singing in any genre.
“Why Baby Why” hit in 1955 and began a spotty career of hits and misses. But his wide open vocals and ability to distill almost consumptive sorrow helped the man who once took a riding mower to town in search of a drink. With an urgency and desolation beyond consolation, his voice transfixed Keith Richards, James Taylor (whose “Bartender Blues” was inspired by Jones), Elvis Costello (who recorded “Good Year for the Roses” on his Almost Blue album) and Frank Sinatra, not to mention a bombshell blond country singer named Tammy Wynette, who became his third wife.
Jones and Wynette were a combustive musical and marital unit. “Golden Ring,” “We’re Not the Jet Set,” “Near You” and “We’re Gonna Hold On” served as a soundtrack for a nation of staring down the growing popularity of divorce. Years after the pair had separated, their musical alchemy was so great, they continued to record duets, releasing One and touring together for it in 1995.
Battles with drugs and alcohol led to his nickname “No Show Jones,” that was later sent up in a song of the same name. Not reliable, capable of singing in the voice of a duck, it would seem a great talent whose demons were greater than the gifts. Jones’ manager was arrested for trafficking drugs, his past royalties were lost to various divorce settlements and he moved to Alabama to avoid arrest warrants for nonpayment of child support to Wynette.
Yet, in proof that love conquers all, enter Nancy Sepulvado. With a fierce resolve, white-knuckle endurance and the fearlessness of a tiger, she pushed back those who were taking advantage or enabling his most excessive behavior, helping the singer restore order, clean up and return the vocalist to his former glory.
With 1980’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a song as timeless as he was, Jones was back on track. But it was the tip of the iceberg. “Still Doing Time” and “I Always Get Lucky With You” was Jones, Mach 2. Established, respected and singing with the same spilt-rail emotion, he connected from a place of the struggle that remains after one makes it.
If success provides material things, it doesn’t balm the wounds or heal the broken places. The tortured parts, regrets and desires unfulfilled remained an epochal motif in Jones’ music. But that authenticity of dust-ups, swerves and broken hearts only made Jones, who would inspire Americana icon Jim Lauderdale to write George Strait‘s No. 1 “The King of Broken Hearts,” even more authentic.
For Barbara Mandrell, it was a matter of proclaiming, “Pulling into the drive-in and turning up George Jones” while attenuating his first name on her No. 1 “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool” that solidified her integrity chops and validated his return.
The musical homages continued. Duet singles and albums — including My Very Special Guests, Ladies Choice, the Country Music Association vocal event winners “You Don’t Seem To Miss Me” (with Patty Loveless) and “I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair” with a who’s who of the moment — showed there was never a shortage of duet partners.
Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill, Keith Richards, Trisha Yearwood, Kenny Chesney, Mark Knopfler, Mavis and Pop Staples, Johnny Paycheck, Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson are just the tip of the iceberg. Everyone wanted to sing with Jones.
Heaven knows, there was no better. And as time went on, his songs became more measured. “Choices” from 1999’s critically acclaimed The Cold, Hard Truth was a sobering look at the ravages of excessive living, the cost of momentum and the responsibility one must take to begin leading a life of accountability.
Still, he would weave when he walked the line, falling off the wagon over the years — only heightening his fallibility and humanity. He understood the struggles and conflicts that bled through his performances because they were the fiber of his being. America is a forgiving place, as quick as it is to revel in bad news, and so phoenix-like Jones rose from the ashes again and again.
Besides, it’s hard to extinguish a fire that burns so hot. To hear him smear vowels and notes on a song like “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will),” with the elegant beat, the slowly rising chorus of polished background singers and the pads of real strings, is to understand no matter how grand the tour, pain is the one thing that can’t be swept away.
In a world where we crave the authentic, the pure, the true, that’s all George Jones could be. With a flat-top that turned to pompadour, polyester leisure suit to the always two-steps behind the times suit coats with turtlenecks, keeping pace with current fashion didn’t appeal to the man with progressive license plates that went from “NoShow1″ to “NoShow7.”
With dates booked through November 2013, George Jones knew one thing — keep singing. It’s what he did, it’s how he lived. Well, that and a world class emotional raw spot that inflected everything he ever sang.
The reality landed squarely in 1985 when Jones looked the oncoming credibility scare of Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Randy Travis, Lyle Lovett, Ricky Skaggs, Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell square in the eye and pondered the inevitability of change. Knowing that time passes and tastes change, he didn’t so much decry the newcomers, as he questioned those who miss the value of the ones who come before.
Celebrating Luke the Drifter, Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Lefty Frizzell and a handful of country legends who shaped the genre, the moaning blues-country vocalist asked “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?” The more the Troy Seals/Max D. Barnes song — produced by the old-school classicist Billy Sherrill — unfurled, the more the contrast expanded.
It’s a question that bares asking, now more than ever. In a world of pitch-correcting, Pro Tools, splicing and stacking vocals, George Jones did it real, on the fly and with the band. Legendarily, it took 83 takes to get “White Lightning,” but a real performance that sparks like a flint striking in the dark.
Do we need old school country music? Hard to say. But you listen to the processed, bulked up steroidal arena country, then put on “When the Grass Grows Over Me.” Feel the difference and decide which has the most immediacy, the most charisma, the most punch to the stomach. It won’t take but a bar or two.
So listening to I Am What I Am, And Along Came Jones, My Very Special Guests, Walls Can Fall, the obscure You Oughta Be Here With Me and “Choices” on random on my six-CD changer, I’m struck by the endurance and the nakedness to the performances. The unwillingness to deflect anything. What he felt was what he sang. Undeniable, and yet that incandescence of feral intensity is its own creative force.
George Jones, you see, wasn’t someone who came to play, but to burn. When you look at it like that, you realize ain’t nobody who can fill those shoes.