April 26, 2013, 4:47 pm
An Appraisal: George Jones in Real Life and Real Time
By LARRY ROHTER
George Jones in an undated photo. The country singer died Friday in Nashville.Associated Press George Jones in an undated photo. The country singer died Friday in Nashville.
Early in 1977, a couple of years after he and Tammy Wynette had divorced, the country music star George Jones played a show at the Stardust Inn in Waldorf, Md., his first in the Washington area in several years. I was then a young pop music critic at The Washington Post, so it fell to me to write a profile of the notoriously hard-drinking singer.
What followed was an experience so intense, so remarkable for its raw emotional force, that I could not help but think of it on Friday, when it was announced that Mr. Jones had died in a Nashville hospital at the age of 81. That weekend I learned two important things about Mr. Jones: that there was very little distance between him and his songs, and that the same qualities that made him a great artist also made his life a torment.
In those days he was still unashamedly carrying a torch for Ms. Wynette, who had left him because, as she put it in legal papers she filed, he “drinks to such an extent that he becomes completely and absolutely unmanageable.” On stage that weekend, he reworked songs like “She Thinks I Still Care” and “Picture Me Without You” so that they included references to her, making them almost embarrassingly personal, as if she were in the audience and he was singing only to her.
But it was on his tour bus between sets that I saw George Jones more achingly and nakedly vulnerable than any performer I have ever encountered, before or since that night. He was dressed in a flashy leisure suit and wore a pair of glittering diamond rings on his left hand, including one with his initials, but as he talked about Ms. Wynette and how much he still loved her, he began to weep.
I don’t think he was drunk. He talked about how he was trying to stay dry for Tammy, who by that time had already re-married and divorced again. Within a year or two, he would develop a cocaine habit that would send his career off the rails, but there was no sign of that either. This was just George Jones in real life and real time.
It is hard today, in a time when irony has become a dominant cultural mode and artists are screened from reporters by phalanxes of handlers, to imagine so public a breakdown happening or a celebrity letting his pain be so visible. But Mr. Jones wasn’t ashamed or embarrassed by that display, and when he went back to the stage for a second set of what he described to me as “sad, sloppy tear-jerkers,” his singing was even more passionate and inspired, with his twangy, somewhat nasal voice cracking in all the right places with what had to be genuine feeling, not artifice.
Over a career that lasted nearly 60 years, Mr. Jones recorded more than 100 albums, and over and over again, he didn’t just sing the songs that were given to him. In the best of his recordings, as on that night, he also inhabited them, so that anyone listening to him could be sure: he really means it, he has really lived this song about heartbreak or hangovers and knows what it means, poor soul.
As someone who grew up in Chicago listening mostly to the blues, I had no special fondness for country music, whose only local outlet in those days was the radio station WJJD. But seeing George Jones live for the first time that cold night in southern Maryland was a revelation, because in his own highly idiosyncratic way he showed himself to be no less soulful a singer than Howlin’ Wolf on something like “How Many More Years” or Otis Redding on “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.”
Despite all the drinking and drug binges that would dog his career, Mr. Jones never lost that gift. In 2009, assigned to write a profile of the Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen for this newspaper, I walked into Mr. Cohen’s New York hotel suite to find him playing one of Mr. Jones’ late-career gems, “Choices,” on his iPod. Mr. Cohen expressed great admiration for Mr. Jones and then recited one of the song’s most powerful verses:
I was tempted
By an early age I found
I liked drinkin’
Oh, and I never turned it down
There were loved ones
But I turned them all away
Now I’m living and dying
With the choices I made
In part because of his consistent “nipping,” as he called it, Mr. Jones never enjoyed the crossover success of his contemporaries Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, and so his passing will probably not have the broad cultural resonance that Mr. Cash’s did. But he was, hands down, a superior singer, a fact obvious to everyone in the country music field: as Waylon Jennings once sang, “If we all could sound like we wanted to, we’d all sound like George Jones.”
But even within the confines of “pure country,” whatever that term might mean today, Mr. Jones did not stand still. He began his career very much in the mold of his idol Hank Williams, singing tunes about honky-tonks and carousing. He never lost his affection for that genre, but over the years he also evolved into a master of ballad singing, especially on his duets with Melba Montgomery and Ms. Wynette, both before and after they were married.
And though a brief late ‘50s flirtation with rockabilly didn’t pan out, Mr. Jones also knew how to rock. It’s almost forgotten now, but he and Elvis Presley once were co-headliners on a Louisiana Hayride tour, and generations of rock ‘n’ roll bands, including ones I played in, have covered songs like “Why Baby Why,” “White Lightning” and “The Race Is On” and found them to be guaranteed crowd-pleasers.
Beginning in the 1980s, Mr. Jones, with the help of his fourth wife, Nancy Sepulvedo, pulled himself out of his tailspin. But by then the country music mainstream had begun to move on to more polished styles, and Mr. Jones’s visceral approach fell out of fashion. In recent years, Mr. Jones had thought of himself as a relic, and expressed bitterness at what he saw as the disregard for what he represented. All that may be true, but it can’t — and doesn’t — dim the magnificence of his achievements, anymore than his personal weaknesses and demons did.