I wanted to say farewell on June 2, when George Jones was scheduled to appear in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on his farewell tour. I had my tickets. But George pulled the ultimate No-Show: he passed away five weeks before I had a chance to say goodbye. There’s a country song in there somewhere.
It didn’t matter, really. George has been my constant companion for the past year, even before his passing and the outpouring of commemoration that followed; whether I was driving down the highway, enjoying a quiet, early evening drink, or trying to echo the catch in his throat when I play along on the pedal steel guitar. His bittersweet ruminations on life and loves lost or won never stray far from my listening consciousness.
Rather than becoming less relevant, George and his kin — you know the names, and if you need reminding, George recites the roll call in 1985′s “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” — seem to speak more strongly to me as the years mount up. Coming of age in New York City, my experience with Nashville was limited to the crossover hits that decorated the pop charts; even as I first visited Music City in the ’70s, it was more exotic sightseeing than understanding country’s muse.
But like a fine Port maturing in a cellar, or a 1957 Telecaster, country music ages well. Waylon Jennings once told me he never felt young, and his songs showed it, taking pride in their hard-won experience, their face-to-face gaze into the mirror of life’s upheavals and transformations. When I discovered George, one step to the left of Tammy Wynette, I began to recognize that sense of oft-times rueful rumination in myself. Pop and rock music always imagines itself as younger than yesterday, a shelf-life that celebrates the joys and heartbreaks of adolescence, however prolonged it might be. But country music speaks to the real: the conflicts we all have and the burdens we shoulder, embodied in the contrasting tag-lines that underline the choruses of country songs. George has a few: “The Right Left Hand,” “Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half as Bad as Loving You).”
That he was a wild man is undeniable. Tales abound of his misadventures, the close calls he had with mortality, his over-the-top inebriations. His rascality was part of his mystique and legend; at his finale tribute, when they drove a lawnmower onto the stage to celebrate one of Jones’s most fabled escapades, well, we all love a character, not to mention a twisted country morality tale.
But like Hank Williams, who used his Luke the Drifter persona to pay penance, George confessed his misbegottens in the recording studio, through many evolutions and permutations of country’s wellsprings. Part of what’s appealing to me about George is the long arc of his career. A ’50s rockabilly singer in Beaumont, Texas, for the Starday label, his ascension to the Nashville hierarchy began with such classics as 1962′s “She Thinks I Still Care”; leading to his long and fruitful association with producer Billy Sherrill, who produced what is acknowledged as George’s most beloved song, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” (Many consider it The Greatest Country Record of All Time, a claim Jack Isenhour argues in an insightful recent book that examines the song in telling detail.) Though often held aloft as a traditionalist, George rode the shifting tides in country music, and if he never went rock, he always allowed the song to dictate its accessorizing. There is no doubt that the swirl of strings that leads into the mid-chorus of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is one of the most breathtaking uplifts in country music, a perfect entrance for George to tremulously eulogize.
Of course, in the world of recorded sound, death is hardly the end. In fact, it allows us to continue our love affair long after the artist is gone, having given all, their last will and testament. Though there will be no more additions to George’s voluminous discography, except for the inevitable mining of his outtakes, live performances, and tall tales of some crazy night or another, his voice lives on.
It is that voice, in all its burnished timbre, which moved me again and again over this year. “You know, this whole world is full of singers/ But just a few were chosen,” Jones narrates in the opening lines of “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” and then slides into, “to tear your heart out when they sing,” his vocal chords fluttering and rising into the song. It resonates — as just about any Jones’s line chosen at random will — George’s oneness with what he is singing, his ability to place himself completely within the actor of the song, to become him, and by extension, us, listening and relating through our own life’s experience. It’s the intimate dialogue of song.
For me, two from George’s canon have been on constant repeat this year. “It’s Been a Good Year for the Roses” magnifies a sense of loss in tiny details — the lyrics speaking to both our temporal existence, and the renewal that is promised, if only by nature’s eternal cycle.
And then there’s “Just One More.” George is full of yearning, regrets and should’ve-beens held at bay, the solace of “another, and then another” beckoning. I’m not that guy these days, thankfully, but he makes me empathize with that sinking feeling, while being grateful that I’m not there; or maybe remembering when I have been there; or might yet will be there.
And another. I reach for George, cue up “The Race is On.” The one we all run, from birth to finish line.