George Jones, my all-time favorite country singer, died this morning. While this of course makes me incredibly sad, I'm also amazed and grateful that Ol' Possum actually managed to make it to the ripe old age of 81, despite a life of addiction and excess that could have easily ended twenty, thirty, forty or more years ago. Though he lived long enough to see himself (and fellow keepers of the traditional country flame like Merle Haggard) become obsolete in the eyes of Nashville and country music radio, he also lived long enough to grasp how important and influential his music was to a whole generation of artists, and not just in the country realm.
I'm no artist, but George Jones was damned important to me, too. His music has soundtracked endless work hours, desert drives and good (and bad) times, and has always seemed to pop back into my life at the most surreal moments. Fr'instance: I'm a lousy pool player, but I once (about 20 years ago) held a table for eight straight games at some East Village dive, while "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me" played over and over again on the jukebox. I won each and every game because my opponents (much better cue-handlers than me) all scratched; I can only assume that was Mr. Jones' melancholy magic at work. And as soon as the song changed, I lost...
As detailed in my new Rhino Single Notes eBook, Honky Tonk Tourist: The Night Buck Owens Almost Got Me Killed, George Jones played a major role in my love affair with country music. Here's an explanatory excerpt from it:
About a year after the release of Almost Blue, I was having dinner with my mom and sister at the apartment of my mom’s writer friend Carol, with whom I’d bonded over our mutual love of music and absurd humor.
That evening, Carol pulled out a copy of George Jones’ My Very Special Guests, a duets album featuring folks like James Taylor, Waylon Jennings and Emmylou Harris. I’d never heard of George Jones; but since my boy Elvis Costello was also on the album, Carol thought I’d like to take a listen. But “Stranger in the House,” the Elvis-penned song that he and George recorded together for the album, didn’t particularly impress me.
What did interest me, however, were the stories Carol told me that evening about George Jones — specifically, the ones regarding his rampant alcoholism. I was just about the right age to really appreciate a good binge-drinking anecdote; and while I was definitely intrigued by Carol’s assertion that Jones was considered perhaps the most brilliantly emotive country singer of all time, a far more sizeable impression was made by her tale of Jones driving his lawnmower ten miles to the nearest bar after Tammy Wynette took away his car keys. The story was rivaled only by the one Carol told me where Jones had gotten so out of his mind on whiskey and cocaine that he’d actually quacked his way through entire concerts, singing songs in a Donald Duck voice. This, then, was clearly an artist worthy of my attention.
Of course, I'd come to appreciate George Jones' voice even more than I dug his less-than-savory personal reputation; and as much as I've always loved his up-tempo ravers like "White Lightnin'" and "The Race is On," there's no question that he did his best work on the slow, sad stuff — the way he combined operatic despair with an almost Zen-like resignation still kills me to this day. There are so many Grade A examples I could post here, but ultimately I have to go with "He Stopped Loving Her Today" — both because you just know he's imagining himself in that coffin, and because I was once walking down the street on a gorgeous California afternoon when I was passed by a Ferrari cranking the song at a level approaching booty-bass volume. Like I said, surreal... but I'll never forget just how cosmically huge his pain sounded and felt at that moment.
Rest in Peace, George. No more pain now.