MUSIC JUNE 4, 2013
The music of George Jones is an argument against the intellect, a case for art made without the mediating influence of the mind. For decades before his death in April at the age of eighty-one, Jones had been widely regarded as one of the greatest singers in country music, if not the greatest ever in his field; but even that exalted status may have undersold him. He was, I think, one of the most distinctive and effective vocalists in the whole history of American music, category notwithstanding. And what gave his singing its intelligibility was its essential unintelligence. Jones communicated something close to pure, but hardly simple, feeling. He made music of a nature that transcends technique, by a method that would elude neuroimaging.
To make this point is not to call George Jones or his music stupid. In fact, what Jones had as a musician—his gifts, and he had more than one—were indisputably kinds of brilliance. He was not merely blessed with an extraordinary vocal instrument: a clear and pliable voice that glided agilely all over both the baritone and tenor ranges. He had superb performance skills, developed and refined—burnished to a gloss: one sort of brilliance—over more than sixty years of singing for a living. He listened avidly to and learned from his forerunners and early peers in what used to be called hillbilly music, especially his (and every other country singer’s) idol Hank Williams, whom he met briefly once (as other country singers since Williams’s lifetime have done only in dreams or blue-screen videos). Jones knew how to put across a tune with style. He understood his audience and all the things he needed to know about the world, which for decades constituted how to sing, where to get a drink, how to get to the place where the drink was (if only, after your wife hid the car keys, by commandeering the riding mower), how to find a girl and lose her pronto, how to pick a fight with the nearest fool, how to get your ass whupped, how to wear floral polyester shirts—in short, how to live as well and as badly as possible every day.1
Jones, in doing so, embodied the clichés of hard drinkin’, hard livin’, and hard lovin’ that pretty much exclusively defined country music in the public imagination until the late 1960s, when country took the sociopolitical turn that put it on its course to Blake Shelton and the jingo assholism of “Kiss My Country Ass.” Hippies had started singing about country roads; then Merle Haggard goaded the longhaired liberals with “Okie from Muskogee”; and a territorial feud over the ideology of ruralism ensued. George Jones was a country star of the music’s pre-political history, and his life and music have been perceived as of a piece since the late 1950s, the days of his first hits on the country-and-western charts.
The youngest of eight children in a poor family with an alcoholic father, Jones was raised in the swampy outback of East Texas, near the Louisiana border. One of his sisters died of malaria there. By his teens, he was singing and playing guitar for tips on the streets of Beaumont, his hometown, and he left high school. Jones, who was shy without a drink, would never be known for his shyness. He was already drinking daily, nightly, and hard when he recorded his first song, an aptly titled failure called “No Money in This Deal,” in 1954. He came up on the same radio show that introduced Elvis Presley, “Louisiana Hayride,” and had his first number-one hit, in 1959, with a roadhouse number about moonshine called “White Lightning,” written by J. P. Richardson—the Beaumont disk jockey better known as the Big Bopper and best known now for having died in the same small-plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. According to Jones in his book, I Lived to Tell It All, an anthology of drinking horror stories that includes some references to music, Jones was so drunk when he was recording “White Lightning” that the session took eighty-three takes. In the released version, he can be heard messing up only one word.
“For me liquor went with country music real naturally, especially inside those Texas honky-tonks,” Jones wrote, with his co-author Tom Carter.
We did what we did and we didn’t care who knew it. It hurt our careers, but we weren’t in the music business primarily for careers. We were in it for the music and because its pace and schedule allowed us to live the way we wanted. It’s easy to get drunk and chase women when you’re working on the road. It isn’t that easy for men who have to come home at a certain time every night.
Jones, when he was drunk, which was nearly all the time until he shifted to a combination of booze and cocaine in the 1970s, felt no duty to be anywhere at a certain time on any night. His notorious absenteeism on the concert stage earned him the nickname “No Show Jones,” which he came to see as a badge of dishonor with branding value in the country marketplace. He did what he did, and he made sure everybody knew it by getting a set of vanity plates for his garage full of cars, from NOSHOW1 to NOSHOW7. After he more or less dried out—with considerable help from his fourth and last wife, Nancy, in the 1980s—he would open his shows, after showing up, with a strange, semi-self-mocking/semi-self-exploiting song about his bad reputation, which he co-wrote with the Nashville songwriter Glenn Martin. “Waylon and Willie are outlaws, Dolly’s got two big reasons she’s well known,” he would sing, in a duet with his bassist Ron Gaddis.
They call me “No-Show Jones”
I’m seldom never on
The stage singin’ my songs
My whereabouts are unknown
Apart from the fact that the chorus made no sense, since to say that one is “seldom never on the stage” is to say that one is usually on it, the song was a sad, flailing grasp at a lost claim to dubious credibility. At the end of the number, Jones would say that he was “tired of singin’ that stupid song.” He would announce that he was never going to sing it again, and he would do the same thing at every show.
In country music, as in every form of pop entertainment, biography is not incidental to celebrity status: it is part of its essence—not the whole of it, but a significant part that can be shrugged off by would-be purists only in snooty denial. George Jones is not a revered giant of country music history despite his reputation as an undependable womanizing drunkard, but, rather, to a notable degree, because of it. This is a fact. And yet it is a fact that tells us little about Jones’s genuine greatness as an artist. After all, George Jones was hardly the only drunk on the police dockets in Nashville.
As a singer, George Jones stands shoulder to shoulder with Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday in originality and importance. Like both of them, Jones had a personal story that contributed mightily to his public image without fully explaining his art. Sinatra, offstage, was a thug, and Holiday was a drug addict, or so the headlines told us; but their recordings have said also a great many other things. To some extent, from time to time, the out-of-control machismo of the barroom Sinatra carried over to his singing. “That’s Life” is an aural whack in the kisser. With Holiday, there are hints of heroin depletion in some of her performances, particularly in her late work. “You’ve Changed,” from her final recording session, is the moan of a woman with suffering in her veins. Still, in the cases of all three of these artists, the depth and the range of their work cannot be reduced to biographical tropes, to the tweets of pathology that pass for understanding in the celebrity culture.
Without a doubt, No Show Jones shows up in some of George Jones’s singing. During a stretch of essentially lost time in the mid-1960s, Jones recorded more than two hundred songs in less than five years for the Musicor label.2 Much of that output is production work, done fast for easy money. Jones is barely present on his own records. More significantly, throughout his long career, he frequently brought his No Show self’s deep familiarity with alcohol and its effects to his readings of material about the drinking life. The best of the songs in this vein—”A Drunk Can’t Be a Man,” “Relief Is Just a Swallow Away,” “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)”—are bluntly tortured, and Jones sings them in a way that is almost oversinging, slurring notes and bearing down hard on the final words of phrases. Heavy drinkers drink, often, not to dull their senses, but to dull their minds and free their emotions, and George Jones’s singing is nothing but emotive.
Jones, again like Sinatra and Holiday—and also like their fellow titans in American singing, Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, and James Brown—had a style that was unique but hardly inimitable. Every country singer alive can probably do a George Jones impersonation, though no one before Jones sounded quite like him. (Hank Williams, with his laconic phrasing, influenced Jones and all country singers to follow him, in the same manner that Bing Crosby established the terms for all singers in his style, including Sinatra.) There was a singing songwriter in country music named Floyd Tillman who, prior to Jones, employed the note-slurring effects that Jones later perfected; but Tillman was practically a novelty act, and his singing came across as gimmicky. Jones imitated no one except himself, veering treacherously close to self-parody in the late 1970s, in the worst days of his cocaine period.
Jones had a handsome and strange voice. His singing was always partly about the appeal of the tones he produced, regardless of the meaning of the words. In this sense, Jones had something in common with singers of formal music and opera, though his means of vocal production were radically different from theirs. He sang from the back of his throat, rather than from deep in his diaphragm. He tightened his larynx to squeeze sound out. He clenched his jaw, instead of wriggling it free. He forced wind through his teeth, and the notes sounded weirdly beautiful.
His signature technique was the glissando, or sliding up or down into a note for dramatic impact. It is this “gliss” or note-slurring that singers tend to do when they imitate Jones, and the technique invariably sounds cheap in lesser hands. Jones almost overdid it almost all the time, but generally pulled it off with eerie panache, in combination with an array of other unusual effects. His classic vocal performances—on “She Thinks I Still Care,” “The Grand Tour,” “A Good Year for the Roses,” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” chief among them—are thrilling, almost freakishly peculiar feasts of sound: unexpectedly elongated notes, abrupt warbling, and swoops in volume and pitch, with Jones sometimes replacing the note in the melody with a note an octave or two lower (or, sometimes, just the tonic note—usually, in his songs, a low G).3 In a concert performance of “Bartender’s Blues,” the James Taylor song that Jones recorded in 1978 and made a staple of his live show, Jones broke the word “away” into seven syllables. It was the perfect word to break apart and pull away, though I can’t help but suspect that with that observation I have now thought more about Jones’s singing of that word than he did. He was a proudly intuitive artist uncomfortable with analysis and resistant to planning. He sang neatly crafted songs about love and heartbreak, and he sang them with unbridled feeling.
I saw Jones in concert only once, at the Bottom Line in 1981, when I was just starting to write about music and didn’t know much. I had done a few pieces for Rolling Stone, and a couple of the editors at the magazine had recently discovered Jones, so I tagged along with them on the press list. I was a budding jazz snob—the worst kind—and snuck out of the show before it was finished. One of the last songs I heard, I still remember, was “The Grand Tour,” a corny tearjerker about a guy making a final visit to his marital home after a breakup, which I had never heard before that night. I left the Bottom Line and walked up to Bradley’s, the jazz club a few blocks north, and listened to somebody play piano—I can’t remember who. But after thirty years, I cannot forget having heard George Jones sing the “The Grand Tour.” I tried not to be moved, and failed.
David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic.