Here’s your Music City Miracle: George Jones turns 80 today.
Let’s all jump up and down, like when Titan Kevin Dyson raced down the sideline at Whatever-It-Was-Called-Then Stadium and beat the Buffalo Bills in the playoffs.
Let’s all jump up and down, out of happiness that the man many folks call the greatest country vocalist of all time is still around to sing for us.
Let’s all jump up and down, out of love and respect for a guy who turned his life around and stiff-armed Father Time.
Because the odds of the great George Jones living to be an octogenarian were considerably longer than the odds of that long-ago (so long that the Bills were actually in the playoffs) Titans’ win in the final seconds of that crazy game.
In the 1970s, the odds of the great George Jones even living to be a quintagenarian (that’s 50) were longer even than the odds of this columnist knowing what quintagenarian meant before looking it up just now.
Jones told me once that he’d rather sing a sad song than eat, and there are times when he indeed made that choice, withering to 105 pounds. George Jones has, as Hank Jr. wrote, been cuffed on dirt roads and sued over no-shows. George Jones broke an arm the day he was born. (The baby-doctor dropped him.)
George Jones spent years in a swirl of lawyers, guns and money, doing everything he could to prevent this day from ever coming to pass.
George Jones turns 80 today.
He should hand the ball to his wife, the former Nancy Sepulvada, and let her spike it in the end zone. He credits her with saving his life. For most men, the “she saved my life” deal is a hyperbolic cliche. When Jones says, “She saved my life,” he means, “She saved my life.”
It’s not that he immediately and permanently straightened up after their 1983 marriage, but she ultimately wore him down with a peculiarly fierce patience. She sized him up as a good man and a bad actor, and she spent decades getting him to act like himself. She loved, fretted and hectored the man people called “No Show Jones” (because, well, he missed a gig here and there and most everywhere else) into presence.
Other Jones nicknames include “The Possum,” for his marsupial resemblance, and my favorite, “The King of Broken Hearts.” Country rock renegade Gram Parsons used to halt west Hollywood parties in the 1960s by putting a sad Jones ballad on the turntable, tearing up and announcing, “Listen, that’s the King of Broken Hearts.” Many years later, Jim Lauderdale wrote a tribute song called “The King of Broken Hearts,” one that has been recorded by George Strait and Lee Ann Womack.
“The King of Broken Hearts doesn’t know he’s the king,” Lauderdale wrote. “He’s trying to forget other things/ Like some old chilly scenes he’s walking through alone.”
There were chilly scenes, fist fights and gunplay, mean bottles and the like. But all that is behind him, he no longer walks alone, and he’s given us one of the most extraordinary catalogues of music ever recorded.
The fun stuff — “The Race Is On,” “I’m a One Woman Man” and the like — is a delight. But on the emotional, contemplative songs, Jones rises into the ether and leaves us all wondering how a man can conjure such depth of feeling. “I’ve Aged Twenty Years in Five,” “A Good Year for the Roses,” “The Grand Tour” and, of course, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” are absolute marvels. They’d serve as lessons in singing, except these lessons can’t really be learned. We just can’t sing like that. But we don’t have to, because Jones already did.
“When you hear George Jones sing, you are hearing a man who takes a song and makes it a work of art, always,” Country Music Hall of Famer Emmylou Harris once surmised. “He has a remarkable voice that flows out of him effortlessly and quietly, but with an edge that comes from the stormy part of the heart. In the South, we call it high lonesome. I think it’s popularly called soul.”
The Village Voice’s Patrick Carr called Jones “Definitely, unequivocally, the best there ever was or ever will be, period.”
I won’t disagree, though such a statement assumes that music is a kind of contest, and Jones has never sought to place himself above his own heroes, like Roy Acuff and Hank Williams, or above contemporaries like Merle Haggard.
So, let’s skip the “best” talk for today, and just go back to jumping up and down, for the wondrous singer of sad country songs.
For the King of Broken Hearts.
For the oldest Possum in the world.