Evidently, a lot of George Jones' obituary writers have heard the one about the riding mower — the times he was stripped of all his car keys, yet was desperate enough for a drink to set out for the liquor store on his lawn mower. It's easy to see why these would resurface in overviews of Jones' life and image: There's no more vivid (or black-humored) illustration that he sunk to some extremely low lows, before straightening up with the help of tough love from his fourth wife Nancy.
If we're less prone to expect such antics from current country hit-makers, it's not because they have no problems with impulse control: It's because their publicists keep a tighter rein. But where Jones really flaunted his freedom was in his singing. Whatever else George Jones was — a reformed man with a spectacularly self-destructive past, a six-decade-spanning recording artist, a Country Music Hall of Famer, a Kennedy Center honoree — he was also country music's archetype of undiluted, emotionally rich masculine expression.
In light of his recent passing, and all the catalog revisiting it's inspired, there's a far more consequential change to contemplate than shifts in the good-PR-to-bad-behavior ratio, and it's one that he himself recognized. It has to do with the calcifying image of the modern male country singer, and a retreat from the range of emotion Jones embodied.
When David Cantwell interviewed Jones for a No Depression feature in 1999, the singer observed that a ballad he wanted to release as a single was probably "too sad for today's country." Jones reportedly expressed a similar concern — albeit in a less lucid state of mind and with more colorful language — 20 years earlier when producer Billy Sherrill brought him "He Stopped Loving Her Today." We all know how that turned out: It became a 1980 country No. 1 and Jones' signature song, a showcase of his ability to get inside a melodramatic vignette and trace its serrated emotional contours with his elastic voice and empathetic soul, thereby lending it gravity.
If many men on the country charts these days feel things that deeply, we'd have no way of knowing it. Too often, they play either the role of the hard-working, hard-playing macho master of a small-town domain, or the crooner of flimsy, tell-her-what-you-think-she-wants-to-hear promises and apologies — or both. It can make for a severely stunted and unsatisfying portrayal of masculinity, especially compared with what Jones, and certain other pre-Aughts acts, contributed to the genre.
Here and there the author of a Jones obit has fetishized his hard-living days, seeming to imply it was the booze, cocaine and other abuse that made him manly, which is just plain morbid. Okkervil River frontman Will Sheff got a lot closer to the truth in the Jones appreciation he posted on his blog last week:
"[T]here's something very humble and earthy and plain about Jones on the surface, a kind of sweet and almost clumsy masculine ordinariness that slightly disarms you at first. He doesn't really seem like a winner, he just seems like some guy, a normal guy, kind of bumbling around the garage."
That characterization is pretty much the opposite of the way a good many of country's major male players are trying to present themselves through their singing and songs. "That idea that 'I am winning even when I'm losing' is pervasive," Cantwell tells the Scene. "Whereas Jones has always really focused on making us aware of the possibility that you can lose, the likelihood that you will lose. And that's gone.
"So many of [his] song titles cut to the heart of that notion that 'My best efforts have not been enough,' which is exactly contrasted with today's country: 'Things Have Gone to Pieces'; 'These Days I Barely Get By'; 'Sometimes You Just Can't Win.' ... Part of his version of masculinity, if that's what we want to call it, is being able to admit defeat."
Besides letting the world see him playing pitiful, hurting, foolish and, yes, even silly characters, Jones used his God-given instrument to convey powerfully complex feelings. Cantwell, one of Jones' most insightful critics, captured the singer's vocal paradoxes in an appreciation he wrote for Slate last week: "Singing open-throated but clench-jawed, he sounded restrained and melodramatic, could come off soothing and terrifying, all at once."
Inhabiting the role of a husband whose wife has left and taken their child, Jones starts off his 1971 No. 1 "The Grand Tour" with sheepish, deflated low notes, before a jolt of pain sends him up into full voice. It's all he can do to hold it together. Then he's sighing again; then wracked again. All this is perfectly, patiently paced — and that's just the first 40 seconds of the song. At other moments, during other songs, he's overwhelmed, or pining, or stoic, or defiant, or sweetly seductive, or embodying some other fitful human state.
The proclamations of admiration for Jones' singing didn't begin with his death. There's high praise on record from predecessors like Roy Acuff, peers like Waylon Jennings, and many who've come along since. And in the grand old tradition of name-dropping forebears in country lyrics, Jones has been a staple, popping up in songs recorded by Barbara Mandrell, The Judds, Hank Williams Jr., Alan Jackson, Jason Aldean, Brantley Gilbert, Jamey Johnson, Lee Ann Womack and numerous others.
For all the Jones referencing, though, precious few active performers sound like they've truly absorbed and adapted his sensibilities to their own singing styles. As Cantwell has pointed out, these days you're more likely to hear that in a woman. Womack, for instance, is a true-blue ballad-singing Jones disciple.
"I don't know that when I first started listening to him that I was really trying to copy him," Womack says. "But after listening to him so much, I started going, 'How does he do that?' Then I just became obsessed, literally obsessed, listening to as much as I could. In recent years, it's become almost a hobby. ... Most people play golf or whatever; I sit down and listen to George Jones.
"Where he's concerned," Womack explains, "dynamics are so important, and that's something that I don't hear a lot anymore. It's not full-on all the time, and it's not a whisper all the time. It's just really what the lyrics call for."
She knows what she's talking about. During the Opry's 80th birthday celebration for Jones, she sang "The Grand Tour" with unhurried Jonesian phrasing, gliding from one line into the next with bruised, bluesy curlicues.
Asked how she translated his influence into her feminine expression, Womack says, "I never really thought of it so much as men versus women. It's just what's inside. [George] grew up very near where I did, and Mark Chesnutt too, and I hear a lot of the same kind of stuff in Mark. ... It's just an East Texas kind of soul."
Chesnutt, who charted his share of meaningful performances in the '90s, counted Jones as something of a father figure/mentor early on. "All my life, I've listened to George Jones every day," he says. "He could change your mood, just by listening to his singing. Some of those songs he recorded, they'd just get me so depressed. Then you'd skip a few tracks over and there's a fun song, like 'Who Shot Sam' or something that gets you going and makes you laugh. It's just the full range of emotion. He was so good at bringing it across."
Of course, Jones wasn't always a lone narrator. He duetted with everyone from Jennings to pop singer Gene Pitney, and in the foundational country form of male-female duets he played out poignant and playful scenes alike with singing partners such as Melba Montgomery and Tammy Wynette, even after Wynette became his ex-wife.
Shelby Lynne's first single in the late '80s was a duet with Jones, though at the time, she says, she "was too young and innocent and green to know to be scared or intimidated." She's definitely grasped it in the 25 years since, and developed her own supple, sometimes close-to-the-vest, sometimes eruptive delivery style.
"What I learned is George Jones was acting out songs so we could feel country music," Lynne says. "He became a part of those stories he was telling. By God, we believed every word."
Understanding what Jones did as stepping into a variety of characters in a variety of stories is a very different thing from saying that he was just singing his life, sticking to what he knew. Though the latter is actually rather reductive and overlooks the creative component of his expression — sort of a "singing as involuntary reflex" deal — more than a few people have described his performances that way over the years.
"The default position on Jones is that he wasn't a very bright man," says Cantwell, "that he had some sort of instinctive genius that allowed him to do this. And I think he was a lot more thoughtful and made really explicit, deliberate choices in his singing and with his career. He made bad choices and screwed things up repeatedly, but I think he wasn't just some idiot savant."
Cantwell adds, "He said to me — not just me; he mentioned in interviews through the years — that he tried to put himself into the position of that song: 'What would this person feel like?' Which in itself is a fairly sophisticated way of approaching art."
It's also downright striking, at a time when most male singers take a blunted approach. But as George Jones knew, felt and conveyed, every emotion bears a jagged edge.
For more on George Jones...Another Side of The Possum
The Grand Tour