About the passing of the almighty George Jones, I'm challenged to say anything that hasn't been said sooner and better. Certainly Charlie Daniels's eulogy at the Grand Ole Opry house is unbeatable -- and worth quoting a large portion of:
"With young singers who tried to emulate George Jones, it was an affectation, while with George it was a God-given natural talent that affected his phrasing, his pronunciation and the melancholy timbre of a voice that had a quality that touched the solemn emotions hidden deep inside all of us.
George did things with his voice that nobody else would ever even think about. He’d hold on to a word, teasing it, turning it and make you wonder where he could possibly be going with it, but just at the right second it he’d turn it loose and just make you smile and admire....
George Jones’s voice was the rowdy Saturday night uproar at a backstreet beer joint, the heartbroken wail of one who wakes up and finds the other side of the bed empty, the far-off lonesome whistle of a midnight train, the look in the eyes of a young bride as the ring is placed on her finger, the memories of a half asleep old man dreaming about the good old days, lost love, lost innocence, good and bad memories and experiences that are just too much for a human being to deal with.
He sang for us all: the non-stop partiers, the guy who is always alone, the girl done wrong, the puppy lovers, the extrovert, the introvert, the guy at the end of the bar who never seems to go home, the happy, the unhappy and everyone in between. George had a song for everybody."
Jon Pareles's obituary in the New York Times was elegantly wrought as well. I especially appreciated the succinct "He brought suspense to every syllable." (I'm not as sure about calling a voice as "elastic as a steel guitar string," which is very taut, but let that one, ahem, slide.)
George's career never had a hipster/underground phase, or a PBS/NPR phase, or an unproductive phase. His first hit single was "Why Baby Why," in 1955. His last one was...well, "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is actually on the charts now. During 56 of those 58 (!) years, he made commercial records in downtown Nashville, using, for the most part, the AFM's most reliable instrumentalists and the industry's top songwriters and producers. In other words, his career is, among other things, a vindication of the country music industry's solicitude for its best singers. It seems plausible to me that he or his management may have lacked the imagination to pull a Rick Rubin late-career move, or may have considered such an outside-the-Row gambit unacceptably risky, as long as the status quo was puttering along nicely enough. But that speculation aside, George's long run on the Row strongly undermines the commonly heard complaint (issued from Jones, among many others) that the industry wantonly cannibalizes its history and trashes its ageing talent. You can look in vain on the adult contemporary or Latin charts for any singer whose first hit was in 1955! For all its shortcomings (which I think I've harped on in other forums), Nashville is the world capital of the decades-long commercial music career. If you want to try for that there, the machinery is already in place.
My mandolinist friend and bandmate Tim Wilson introduced me to this consensus take on George, back in the 1980s, when I was first getting seriously absorbed in country: "unbelievable singer -- lots of lousy songs." George, I think it's safe to say, was content letting trusted experts direct vast swaths of his life outside of drinking and lovemaking. His reluctance to record "He Stopped Loving Her Today" was a standout moment in a life of dutiful renditions of material by established brand names like Dallas Frazier and Leon Payne, put before him at quick-moving recording sessions by Pappy Daily, Billy Sherrill, and a few others. As Charlie Daniels said, the talent George had was innate. He was no auteur; didn't do extravagant concepts; didn't micromanage. In any of the usual senses of the word, Jones didn't even manage, much of the time. Compared to the country singers now dominating the business, whose every utterance and personal appearance and released musical work is weighed and edited and superintended (all to create the illusion of easygoing simplicity!), George's approach was spare. He donned a gaudy suit, combed his hair, and rode along. He frequently showed up. Whenever he did, he opened throttle, fully. He was always game, as anyone can hear from the consistent committedness of his recorded singing. Hearing that voice on some of those songs is like watching Bela Lugosi leap into the puddle with the octopus for Ed Wood.
I'd love to shoot some holes in the above-his-material consensus. My instinct, as against this idea that George cut more junk than his contemporaries, is to shine up the old singer-not-the-song line, to compile a boringly long evidentiary list of every blah composition put on wax by Johnny Cash or Barbara Mandrell, to make an equally boring list of wonderful underpraised songs just under the topsoil of singles in George's albums. I don't think there's too strong a case to make, though. It happens that I bought the Bear Family set of George's 1965-1971 Musicor recordings a few months back (A Good Year For The Roses) and listened through with just this idea, of discovering buried treasures. I didn't find many. There's just too many songs he cut that are manifestly unworthy of him: weak songs, bland songs, dashed-off trifles and forgettable misses. The notes to the collection, written by Rich Kienzle, put rather too fine a point on this, moving impatiently from track to track while scattering a steady hail of adjectival disapproval: "dull, pun-inspired...unexceptional...dim-witted novelty...watery and flat...nonsensical...barely adequate...a mediocre ballad about marital discord......throwaway...filler...a nadir...moronically cartoonish...goofy...another bit of filler...flat, cliched...not much adventure ... lackluster ... unimpressive ... bizarre ...dismissable...dull, workmanlike...sloppy...hamhanded...assembly-lined then hi-lifted into a truck...mundane." Kienzle devotes four full paragraphs of narrative detail and thick scorn to an it-could-only-happen-in-the-Sixties misfire called "Unwanted Babies":
"Unfortunately, Peanut [the nickname of writer Earl Montgomery] accounted for a musical turd of sorts in George's repertoire, one even worse than Poor Chinee: the bizarre, minor-key Unwanted Babies, a tune so alien to Jones's nature it's difficult to imagine how anyone convinced him to record it short of at gunpoint or offering another bottle. The idea of one referred to even then as the greatest living country singer recording a minor-key, 60's Folk-Rock anthem aimed at 'young audiences' (including the hippies scorned by many of Jones's conservative fans) is beyond absurd..."
Well, minor keys are really not for Rich! It was smart of the label to put this stuff inside the package -- under the cellophane on top of which is stuck a $124 list price. It's hard to disagree vehemently with any of these judgments, song by song, but it's also hard to reconcile the almost religiously respectful presentation of a heavy Bear Family box with the sometimes gimlet-eyed tone of the essayists. The scholarly commentary in these shrinelike boxes would be more suited to a half-academic, half-popular biography. Music is the only business I can think of that offers for sale a product accompanied by a soberly rigorous takedown of itself. (I have to admit I am thinking here of criticisms that have directly followed broadcasts of my music -- as well as Ryan Adams's and others' -- on Sirius/XM, or dismissive reviews that serve as official headers on itunes album-sale pages -- "a large-scale miscalculation...a cut-rate Bruce Springsteen parody...crashing guitars and booming drums" the prospective buyer learns in clicking on my third record. Are we exactly selling things here, people? Or proudly advertising some third party's ironclad integrity? Pick one.)
In contrast to these music marketers, George's aim was relatively clear. He was in the business of cutting songs, and -- in part by recording lots of them -- of improving the odds of scoring a hit. Merle Haggard fashioned some killer albums over the years, but George left the aerial view to later anthologizers. There's been no shortage of efforts here, and so we've got some excellent no-filler Jones long-players, on vinyl and disc. Rockin' the Country is a terrifically entertaining romp through his rockabilly sessions. Rounder's 1983 13-song Musicor overview, Burn The Honky-tonk Down, is a beautiful distillation of 1960s highlights (it probably constitutes more than half of what the average listener needs to hear of that period); by intelligent subtraction it puts the era in a distinctly kinder light than the swollen Bear Family set.
About George's broad vocal influence there can, of course, be no doubt. I like Charlie Daniels's bringing "affectation" into the picture, because it hints at an artistic proverb: "Undigested influence equals affectation." Even if there were many people up to the physical challenge of mimicking Jones's untempered sweep of a voice, it's not something you'd care to hear, like every writer channeling Cervantes. But faint echoes and hand-me-down fragments -- John Anderson's comic crescendoes; Gary Stewart's quavering, edge-of-tears high notes; Vern Gosdin's slipperiness and low-register Sensurround (does anyone recall Charlton Heston's Earthquake?) -- are as abundant in country as they are welcome.
Speaking of Cervantes, George certainly had an unerring feel for low broad comedy. I wish I had witnessed the characters he famously imported into his whacked-out 1980s shows: Dee-Doodle the Duck and The Old Man. I wish I'd seen him flush five thousand dollars down the toilet, which strikes me as a fine and purifying thing to do just once in a man's life. Instead you can hear him do the vocal equivalents of these heedless acts on record. On "Who Shot Sam," "The Corvette Song," and 95 others, Jones uses half-a-dozen timbral shades and funny sounds in the service of a perfectly unhinged goober delirium.
I was in his company twice and only briefly, and I've told it before, but here goes. When I was asked by my friend Gail Davies to sing on her Webb Pierce tribute record, I made sure to arrive at the studio early. We vocalists were slotted to sing over previously recorded band tracks, every 45 minutes or so, over what I recall as a two-day stretch, and George was in the slot right before mine. I watched and listened through the glass in the control room as he, a smallish figure in a booth far across the empty tracking room, squeezed notes from his squat frame. Fed through George's trademark husky slide whistle of a throat, composed melodies were rounded and liquefied, and intervals bullied into non-existence. Tone poured out of him like pancake syrup. Records these digital days have become close to what collector geeks have long imagined them to be -- artifacts assembled in mysterious places by semi-miraculous means, a serendipity of monkey talent and inscrutably wise direction -- but when you watch a session like this one, you can see that some of the best sounding records of the century passed were the unlikely result of a banal looking procedure. An ordinary-looking fellow shows up, does as asked, and goes promptly on to the day's next appointment.
Jones was the rare kind of singer who is in a superior relationship over concert pitch. However, on this day, the terms seemed reversed. It sounded like he was battling, just a little. Meanwhile no one said anything but nice words. Second-best George was still something else. After about five minutes of trying, he apologized for having a cold and said he'd have to return in a while. When he popped out of the booth, I, along with Gail, Chuck Mead, and a few others stepped into the tracking room to spend a little time in his presence. Chuck always seems poised when it matters, but I tend to feel like a verbally challenged douchebag, and I do believe it shows. Gail snapped a picture of the possum and me arm in arm. I was smiling loonily, oddly aware that the shirt I happened to be wearing was that of the punk band Shellac. After the picture was taken, George, who stood almost a foot shorter than me, looked up at me and said, "Mutt and Jeff," laughing. What a great George Jones thing to have said to one, was what I thought.
A year later I was hired to helm another tribute project, this time to George's old friend (and near-equal as a C&W singer) Johnny Paycheck. I started hunting down a variety of singers that I thought were starkly obvious candidates, or unlikely-but-probably-awesome, or somewhere between. Jones was of course in category One. I called his manager, Evelyn, and pitched the record. She was friendly but non-commital, and while she and George were considering whether to take part or not, I FedExed her office a copy of a tune that Gail and I had covered on the record, first recorded in the 1950s by Johnny and written by George. I immodestly thought my cover had come out well, and moreover would convey the animated and loving spirit of the project.
It didn't take long for George to respond. I heard via Evelyn that he very much liked the track, but was surprised to learn that it was his. "He asked me if I was sure he had written it," said Evelyn. "I told him Robbie Fulks said it, and I had no particular reason to believe otherwise." The next week, still thinking about the tune, George visited BMI's database to ascertain the song's authorship. "'Hey, I did write that song after all'," Evelyn reported his happy words back to me. "'That's a good song. I think I'll do that one for the Paycheck record.'"
I reminded Evelyn that I had already cut the song for the Paycheck record. That was what he had listened to. "I know that," she said. "But try telling George." Well, after another try or two, the bad news sank in, and he started to ponder other songs of his late friend's he might render. The main thing was, at this point, I had him hooked. I was elated.
Two months later, we were in Nashville recording him. As I remember it, we slated his vocal session more than once and he bailed with some excuse or another. I was disappointed that the appointment he ultimately did keep was after the band's dates were finished -- it was important to me to have the two components, instruments and voice, recorded together at the same time -- but also a little bit thrilled to be getting a small taste of the famous no-show treatment. It was like being insulted by Rickles, bamboozled by Trump, killed by O.J. Also, it was very funny to me that, on the day he did show up, it was 45 minutes late -- he said he absolutely had to be on his way home 25 minutes later. He had a theory that beginning at 3:15 precisely, traffic in Nashville became nightmarish.
He sang through the song ("She's All I Got") twice. Then he asked if he thought we had enough. 3:15 was now ten minutes away. I said I thought we had enough. He wondered if we were sure, then suggested he sing the repeating fade-out lines in one more pass. This turned out to be a master class in vocal interpretation. Several weeks later, the engineer and I sat quietly (all right, maybe we were chuckling gleefully now and then) listening to line after line of "I said Friend, don't take her she's all I got," in about two dozen iterations, each one wildly -- and, more often than not, comically -- different than the last. He was paid, during his life, to defy expectation every time he opened his mouth. This work he did immaculately.
At the session he wore bright green slacks ("beyond absurd" -- Rich Kienzle) and a cap reading "Golfers World." He stepped from the booth and I handed him a check. He did a hot-potato move with it before folding it delicately and putting it in his shirt pocket. "You're paying him right now?" said Evelyn, who was also there. "That's great," she said. "Do you know why? Because George loves money." If I had to pick one anecdote, one scene, that summed up what I love about country music other than the music itself, it would be this one: me paying the King of Country an entirely unimpressive sum by personal check, him goofing with it, and the gently sardonic caption "He Loves Money" under the tableau.
In the last two minutes preceding 3:15 that day, I had my final photo with the king taken. This time I believe I had a more sensible outfit on, but I made a pretty bold move, as we stood there, arms once again interlocked -- I looked down at him, and, acting as though the words had just popped unbidden into my head, exclaimed, "Mutt and Jeff!" He emitted that kind of delighted little burst like your grandpa might give you if you suddenly said "Don't open that closet, Fibber!" As I watched him tear off into the fearsome Nashville traffic in his big black S.U.V, I felt content indeed, having left George Jones the parting memory of a freakishly tall young (I was sort of young then) man to whom the monuments of times gone by -- Mutt, Jeff, him -- were very much alive.
No more, though; goodbye to the great George Jones. If he had just sung as well as he sang, he'd still be a long-revered giant. But there was a little more; the biography, the off-record events, mattered with this man. The defects, weaknesses, quirks, and less-than-glamorous aspects of character that entertainers and their handlers routinely strive to conceal and to brush over were, in Jones's public persona, brazenly on display. They were embedded in -- or so we fans couldn't help believing -- his hyperemotional vocal delivery. He seemed to make uninhibited use of his whole humanity in his performance, not only the parts that reflected attractively on him. Though he behaved very self-destructively for a very long time, he enjoyed the triumph of outliving the spans allowed him by ancient scriptures and modern statistics. He used some women poorly, submitted to his addictions, burned through money like crazy, was crazy maybe, recorded too many songs, and left not a few promoters holding the bag. But everybody loves a rogue, and when he's also a great cutup, tragedian, and vocal artist all in one -- altogether one of a kind -- then anything goes and all is forgiven.