Friday, April 26, 2013

RIP George Jones, my gateway to really hearing country music

Posted By on 04.26.13 at 12:18 PM

George Jones
  • courtesy Webster & Associates
  • George Jones
A couple of weeks ago I listened to a recent reissue that compiled the complete United Artists singles of George Jones, my favorite country singer. I couldn't remember the last time I had put on one of his albums, but he was the kind of artist who renders such gaps irrelevant: no matter how time had passed, hearing that voice made it seemed like it had never gone away. It was always there, in my brain. Jones had been in frail health for years and the power of his voice—if not his remarkable way of using it to phrase melodic lines—had diminished, but this morning, when I read that Jones had died at 81, it still felt like someone had kicked me in the throat. He wasn't merely the greatest country singer of all time—he was my bridge into country music, the guy who erased my cynicism for the genre, and the artist who engendered the idea that it's the singer, not the song.

There's little point in me recounting his career ups and downs and his profound influence on music in his wake—for that I would direct you to an excellent obituary by Jon Pareles in the New York Times. But I feel like sharing what Jones meant to me—I'm sure a million folks have similar stories. The person who introduced me to Jones in a real way was my old friend Bruno Johnson, a onetime Chicago fixture who, at 6'8", couldn't be missed. He worked at the Green Mill and Hopleaf before opening his own bars the Palm Tavern and Sugar Maple in Milwaukee. He also runs the great free-jazz label Okka Disk. But he's a huge country fan, too. Back in the late 80s Johnson told me about many great country singers, but Jones was the one who hit me the hardest. We would sometimes end a raucous evening at Sharon's Hillbilly Heaven, a seedy country bar across the street from the Aragon Ballroom—Dwight Yoakam stands in front of it in his video for "Guitars Cadillacs"—which had an awesome old country jukebox and sold a clear liquid kept in a big glass jar with a handwritten sign that read "White Lightning." I stuck to cheap beer back then, but I loved the presence of the moonshine because of Jones's song "White Lightning."

In subsequent years I bought up most of the Possum's discography, and with it a greater and greater understanding of his particular genius. He was deeply soulful and the way he could elongate a note or suddenly drop its pitch sent shock waves through me—shock waves of meaning that gave the lyrics greater resonance and depth. Jones made words on a page come to life like no one else. I enjoyed all of the stories about his wild, alcohol-fueled behavior—especially the infamous tale of his then wife Tammy Wynette confiscating his car keys so he couldn't drive down to the bar, so Jones took the tractor instead (I don't care if there's any truth to this one)—and while his crazed life brought extra legitimacy to everything he sang, with time the myth-making was eclipsed by the man's art. I would imagine that anyone who really loves music qua music (as opposed to any particular genre) owns at least one or two Jones albums. But I think we owe it to ourselves, and to Jones, to raise a cup and listen to some of his songs. I casually found a few of my favorites—there's so many more—that you can check out below. If you don't know the Possum, let your education begin.

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