JOHN FOYSTON The Oregonian Staff
Sure, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is the greatest country song that ever was or ever will be, but another mark of George Jones’ enduring genius – why he’s still relevant at 75 and why you should see him Wednesday – is how his honesty came through even during the low points of his Nashville career.
“That voice is undeniable,” said bluegrass musician Josh Cole, “even with the hokiest backup singers and production, even with strings dripping off everything, his soul comes through.”
Cole came to Jones’ fandom recently, after realizing his favorite songs on a CD of Ralph Stanley duets were the ones Stanley sang with Jones. He soon bought some of the classic albums from Jones’ half-century career (during which the man has had more than 160 songs in the Top 100 charts) – and some of the not-so-classics. That’s when he realized that in Jones’ case, even the B-sides are worthy.
Pedal steel guitarist Harley James of the local honky-tonk classicists the Buckles is a longtime fan who believes that Jones and Johnny Paycheck are the two greatest country singers ever. But he was prepared for the worst – or less-than-best, anyway – when he went to one of Jones’ Portland appearances several years ago. “I was all set to be disappointed,” he said, “and the band was just so-so and the pedal steel player wasn’t great, but George Jones’ vocal range was just unbelievable – he carried the entire show.
“The thing is, he’s been through so much in his career – the drinking, the marriages, the ups and downs of the business – and that all comes through in his voice.”
Few things are more difficult to describe than that voice, but a way Jones sings sometimes through clenched teeth suggests a man restraining emotions that most of us can’t even imagine. Every word is shaped, every phrase perfected by craft all the more uncanny for its offhand employment – Jones can wring more heartfelt feeling from a syllable than most singers can from a career. Even in his 70s, Jones’ instrument is still amazing, a voice that ranges from an improbable baritone to a tenor seemingly freed from gravity.
“I’ll always be a diehard fan,” said guitarist Mark Spangler, who played in such bands as Johnny & the Distractions and, currently, Big Pay. “Part of it is the sheer force of personality – when he starts to sing, the molecules in a room just vibrate. Part of it is beyond singing, the emotional information that comes through, and part of it is sheer technique, like in ‘The Grand Tour,’ where he starts out pretty straightforward but then just rears back and hits that phrase ‘Welcome to the grand tour’ – the way he bends those words around, it just hits you in the gut.”
And nobody can do that quite like George Jones. “He’s kind of uneven,” James said, “he’s slightly goofy, but he is magic.”