The first time I heard George Jones in concert was on March 16, 1982, at the Paradise Theater in Boston. He was to play two sets, and my three close friends and I opted for the first one, fearing that "No Show Jones" (a nickname richly earned) might ditch the later show.
Bobby Bare was the opening act, but country music lovers were there for one reason, to hear the greatest living country singer, a title that had already stuck to Jones by the 1960s. Frank Sinatra famously called him "the second best singer in America," a supreme compliment-cum-put down, which nevertheless sounded ever so slightly defensive.
We heard him at one of the low points of his life, though it would be hard to say precisely which point was the lowest: when he escaped to the liquor store on his riding lawn mower after his wife had hid the keys to all his cars; when after his divorce from Tammy Wynette he became so addled by alcohol and amphetamines that he sang onstage in a Donald Duck voice; when his manager hooked him on cocaine to get him off booze. And that's not counting the three divorces, recurring business failures, and health scares.
Yet even during the worst times he could make beautiful music, and it was heaven that night to hear him sing about the hell he'd been through. There were better songwriters and guitar players than Jones, but no one could match his voice, which helped him achieve hit songs in six decades, from the 1950s to the 2000s. A supple baritone, it could descend playfully to Ernest Tubb bass notes and in an instant recover to hit a piercing, sustained, Appalachian wail of heartbreak, simple, no vibrato, pure pain.
Sometimes it seemed less like he had chosen the songs and more like the songs had chosen him, his voice snapping his body around the stage as though in obedience to the muses, like Plato's description of poetic inspiration in the Ion. Certainly Jones could never explain his great gift. Just learning to live with it took him half a century. But he did learn, more or less, and in the last 30 years of his life he shed the drugs and boozing and honored his divine talent by making some wonderful music.
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Roughly speaking, his career had two peaks, the first driven by sorrow and the second by joy, or at least by a certain equanimity. You could also say the first was fueled by liquor and the second by sobriety. The first culminated in I Am What I Am, his 1980 album that returned him to the top of the charts, and from which he selected many of the ballads he sang that night: "If Drinkin' Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)," "I'm Not Ready Yet," and what had already become his signature song, "He Stopped Loving Her Today." The second peaked with Cold Hard Truth, his 1999 CD that represented a coming to terms with his life and his "Choices," one of the album's hit singles.
Jones was a kind of figure we see little of in American culture anymore—working-class, shy, a natural patriot (his father, a truck driver and pipe fitter, was named George Washington Jones), ex-Marine, no college, quick to anger, quick to feel remorse, and though I have no idea what his politics were, you can be sure he would nowadays be regarded as Incorrect. (For one thing, he persisted in calling women "girls.")
Like the best of traditional country music, which he incarnated, he retained a moral clarity that no amount of low living could efface. Cheatin' songs were just that—about cheating, sinning, breaking promises and hearts. Drinkin' songs didn't hide the hangovers and regrets sure to come. "A man can be a drunk sometimes," he sang on his 1976 album Alone Again, "but a drunk can't be a man."
There are no psychiatrists, life coaches, or other modern affectations in traditional country, nor in George Jones's world. His redemption came from the love of a good woman (his fourth wife and widow, Nancy) and a good God; that's how he put it, at least. They finally helped him find the strength he needed to govern himself.
Oh, and that second show at the Paradise? The Boston Globe reported that George skipped out, and was last seen heading out of town on a motorcycle with a blonde and a bottle of tequila. His disappointed fans probably went home and put on his records. When he died two months ago, aged 81, he left all his admirers in the same position, grieving him through his own unforgettable music.