I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe the reasons are the increasing financial shocks on Wall Street. Be that as it may, the music and voice of George Jones comes to mind this week.
Born Sept. 12, 1931, with a style strongly influenced by Hank Williams, Jones is regarded by many as the greatest country singer of all time, admired by musicians outside the industry, by the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Elvis Costello and Emmy Lou Harris, among others.
Time and again I’ve heard singers, including blues harp ace Rick Estrin of Sacramento, rhapsodize about Jones, speaking in hushed tones as they cite tunes such as “She Thinks I Still Care,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “White Lightning” and “The Night the Bottle Let Me Down.”
Now and then, when AM, not FM or satellite, radio forged the tastes of music lovers, I would hear Jones on the airwaves. In the early 1970s, when country music took on the the first airs of pop music, lush studio arrangements could not mask his pure country voice nursed in East Texas honky-tonks in the late 1940s. They were tunes such as “Loving You Could Never Be Better” and “Once You’ve Had The Best.” Then there were the duets with wife Tammy Wynette, sometimes called the queen of country, including “We’re Gonna Hold On” and “Golden Ring.”
Nearly always, I would be taken aback with his artistry. Jones’ voice, it seemed, ranged oddly in a nether world, somewhere between a tenor and baritone. The vowels and consonants slipped off his tongue,like an admixture of melted butter with brown sugar, the pain and ache plumbed deeply in the silences between the words and chords strummed on his guitar.
Most recently, I have stumbled across albums that epitomize early and a more mature Jones, “Just One More: The Legend Begins,” a compilation, and the newly released “George Jones: Burn Your Playhouse Down,” respectively. The latter is a group of unreleased duets, recordings ranging from the mid-1970s with Wynette, daugher Georgette, Keith Richards, Leon Russell, Ricky Skaggs, Shelby Lynne and Mark Knopfler, to name a few.
Whether he sings “Why Baby Why,” a Top 5 country hit in 1955, or “You and Me and Time” with Georgette, one thing comes across more than anything: an abiding commitment to the song, to the task at hand.
Jones’ early recordings belie a vocal and instrumental debt to Williams. The production values of the day predated those of his producer Brian Ahern, who shepherded some of “The Bradley Barn Sessions” that MCA released in 1994. Still, it’s a treat to hear Jones sing “Rock It” and “Heartbreak Hotel,” giving them his best rock ‘n’ roll licks. By the late 1970s, however, Jones began to cultivate a deeper, more burnished sound, full of vibrato, the one most people are familiar with. You can hear it, in full bloom, in “Lovin’ You, Lovin’ Me,” the duet that ends “Burn Your Playhouse Down.”
I know Jones’ reputation as a hard-drinking, much-divorced fool, beset by demons, real or imagined, precedes him whenever his name is mentioned. True, he was once known as “No Show Jones,” but has cleaned up his act (or is trying to, once again), by all reputable accounts.
But his recordings and his voice will be his true legacy. These George Jones albums are good medicine for our difficult times, if just for a brief moment.