Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Goodbye, George Jones

You can well believe a kid growing up in New Jersey in the 1960s took heat for listening to George Jones. "She Thinks I Still Care" came out when I was about to turn eight, and that twangy, soulful voice grabbed me at once. (Might have been the song, too. I've never heard a bad version, and I especially like the ones by Leon Russell and Patti Loveless.)

I followed Mr. Jones through "The Race Is On", "Love Bug" and song after song. By high school, he occupied space on my (alphabetical) shelves next to the Joplins, Janis and Scott. I've always been a sucker for sincerity in any art form, and he had plenty.

That was his defining quality, I think. No matter how corny a song may have been -- say, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," which belongs on any collection of great country recordings -- George Jones sang it so intently that you can't laugh at the sentimentality of it. I believed he was the son of a moonshine-maker in "White Lightning" and the heartbroken husband of a departed wife in "The Grand Tour."

I went to see him in concert in the mid '80s, shortly after "She's My Rock" hit the charts. He didn't have a lot of stage presence; he spoke quietly, sang the music the way it had been written and didn't encourage his band to jam. I can't say I was disappointed -- what else would I have expected him to do? -- but I realized he'd already made the songs as good as they could ever be in the studio, where engineers could mix his pining voice with instruments in exactly the right blend.

Though he's not my favorite country singer (that'd be Hank Williams), I'd say he encompasses a wide variety of moods better than anybody since Hank: giddy, mournful, rueful, cheery, even self-mocking. How many singers would have performed a song such as "No-Show Jones," written about his well-publicized failure to turn up at concert venues?

The country music stations that mourned his passing last week don't play his music now, any more than pop stations play Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. (I caught flak for listening to them, too. My friends couldn't see beyond the Rolling Stones and The Beatles.) So I don't know that anybody under 40 will get a chance to share my passion for Mr. Jones, unless they stumble on their parents' CDs in a closet. I hope they do.