I am an avid fan of county music, possibly stronger in my love for the genre than ever. As a child of the 60s, I grew up listening to Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings (the pre-outlaw version) and Merle Haggard on my tiny little AM transistor radio. As the child became a teen in the 70s, my interests drifted to the rock of the era … Elton John, Bad Company, and Grand Funk Railroad. But in the 80s, I returned to the music of my childhood with a vengeance. One of the primary reasons was George Jones. And now, the music has left us for good.
George Jones died today at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville after being hospitalized with fever and irregular blood pressure. He was only 81, but it seems to me that he has always been around, just in the distance, haunting us with that incredible voice that mixed a twinge of whiskey with an unmistakable sadness. To me, I suppose, he was the perfect county music singer.
I’d heard of George Jones as a kid but I never really gravitated to his music, despite his TV show that ran weekly. In those days, I was more familiar with Porter Waggoner and Dolly Parton’s show, along with the great Buck Owens, than I was with George. In fact, the thing I remember most about Jones in the 60s was his marriage to the First Lady of Country Music, Tammy Wynette.
The country duo endured a tremendous success as singers (they recorded several #1 songs together, including Two-Story House and Golden Ring) but their marriage (1969-1975) played out like a country song, with hard drinking, fights and reconciliations. Legend has it that after one argument, Jones drove off on a riding mower in search of a drink because Wynette had taken his car keys to keep him from carousing. It’s an image and legend that has reached legendary status in country music history.
There will be dozens of tributes to Jones, aka “No-Show Jones” (thanks to his history of missing concerts) or “The Possum,” but I wanted to share my personal thoughts on this iconic man with you here.
In 1980, I was a new second lieutenant stationed at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona going through basic training prior to my first assignment at Ft. Bragg, NC. A fellow classmate and buddy was a big fan of country music (more so than I was at the time) and he convinced me to go to a country bar in Tucson one Saturday night. The cover band sang a song I’d never heard … He Stopped Loving Her Today. It mesmerized me. My buddy said, “If you like this version, you should listen to the original!” I did. I’m still listening today.
He Stopped Loving Her Today brought Jones out of a decade of alcoholic misery and propelled him to the top of the charts for years to come. Always a respected singer, the song, which many fans equated to his broken heart over losing Tammy Wynette, made Jones the #1 singer in the land.
I first saw Jones perform live in 1982 at the auditorium in Fayetteville, NC. He was 20-minutes late, and I was one of the thousands wondering if he would be “No-Show” Jones. But he did arrive and when he finally sang those magic words … He said I’ll love you till I die … the crowd went berserk!
On a visit to Nashville in 1997, I took in a night at the Opry and there he was again. His standing ovation almost brought the house down!
I saw him again in 2008 in Augusta, GA, along with my wife, Renee and her parents. You could see that George no longer had that golden voice from the past and he needed lots of help from his band and back-up singers. But he was still George Jones. And when he sang THE song, he got a loud and boisterous standing ovation (again). And why would he not? That song was the CMA Song of the year two years in a row (the ONLY time that has happened, to my knowledge). He, of course, won the Grammy for it in 1981 and followed again in 1999 with his hauntingly autobiographical, Choices. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992 (Duh!) and in 2008, he was among the artists honored in Washington at the Kennedy Center.
And now, he’s gone, leaving behind a legacy as rich as ANY singer who ever walked the streets of Nashville. Driving home from work today, the radio station played nothing but George Jones’ records and man oh man, did they bring back memories! It reminded me of the words of one of my favorite Jones songs:
In my memories of us,
Things are still the same.
For yesterday is something,
Tomorrow cannot change.
Where freckles just don’t disappear,
and pigtails never rust!
Yes, everything is still the same,
in my memories of us.
Good-bye, George. Your golden voice will live forever, so long as anyone still aspires to pick-up an old guitar to play three chords and the truth. I guess ol’ Waylon was right when, in a tribute to you filmed for HBO in 1980, he said:
From Elvis out in Memphis,
To the Beatles and the Rolling Stones,
If we could all sound like we wanted to,
We’d all sound like George Jones.