The voice was hard but elastic, and filled up the contours of the most ordinary song like molten plastic injected into a metal mold. George Jones sang about the lives of tough men and women — Southerners who had gone off to fight in World War II and Korea, and had come home to a hopped-up America of honky-tonk music and fast cars. A Texas boy who grew up fast, Jones was one of those restless Southerners, and he sang about their post-war joy and ennui from the inside looking out.
At a time in American history that welcomed the idea of rebellion, Jones kicked against the traces, but he stayed close to home. His death last week in Nashville at 81 closes one chapter of 20th century history that includes the rise of country music, an art that draws much of its strength from the tension between rebellion and conformity.
Jones' uncanny, sublime vocal style partook of that tension, but the greatest singer in country music history was also a superb comic artist. Like many comic geniuses, he sometimes hid his true nature behind dazzling technique, and one measure of Jones' greatness is the way his sense of humor — his apprehension of the ambiguity that divides every human soul — amplifies his tragic sense of life.
The voice really was uncanny. Influenced by such early country singers as Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, Jones developed into a stylist of staggering originality. Jones used his prodigious technique to express emotional truth. On his 1980 recording of Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman's "He Stopped Loving Her Today," Jones brings past and present into focus in a song about eternal love. "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is widely regarded as the greatest country song ever recorded, and it qualifies. But Jones' catalog contains dozens of equally accomplished performances.
In the 1960s, his voice stretched the limits of country singing in the same way such jazz soloists as John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins explored new possibilities in their work. In the '70s, Billy Sherrill's mannerist arrangements augmented songs that defined Jones' persona as an ordinary man confronting life's vicissitudes with humor, compassion and style.
Along the way, Jones became a symbol of the ravages of the country music life. Nicknamed "The Possum," Jones had picaresque bouts with alcohol and drugs, and his recordings played upon his image as a man for whom mischief was inseparable from piety. In 1969, Jones married country singer Tammy Wynette; the marriage didn't last, but the duet recordings from that period do — some scarifying, others blissful, all immaculately sung.
During the period after his 1975 divorce from Wynette, Jones' unreliability earned him the sobriquet "No-Show Jones." His excesses were Homeric, the stuff of legend even among Nashville's rogue's gallery of hellraisers. One tale recounts how Jones' manager, Pappy Daily, bailed the singer out of jail, gave him $2,500 up front, and landed him an engagement. After the show, Daily heard that Jones could be found backstage flushing Daily's hard-earned advance down a toilet. The apoplectic manager confronted him. Jones' response was classic: "That's a goddamn lie. It wasn't but $1,200 I flushed."
George Glenn Jones was born Sept. 12, 1931, in Saratoga, Texas, a town in the eastern part of the state. His father bought him a guitar when George was 9, and the future superstar began his career singing in local honky-tonks. He served in the Marines in the early '50s before signing to Daily's Starday Records, which released his self-penned 1954 single "No Money in This Deal."
He hit the charts in 1955 with "Why Baby Why," a quasi-rockabilly recording. He cut a career-making hit with Dickey Lee's "She Thinks I Still Care" in 1962, scoring also with former Sun Records producer Jack Clement's "A Girl I Used to Know" and "Not What I Had in Mind."
Signed to the Musicor label in 1965, Jones entered the first of his great periods. By this time, Jones had developed a vocal style that he applied to such songs as "When the Grass Grows Over Me." The surety of his pitch matched his silvery tone, while his phrasing made room for low baritone notes and melismatic decorations.
During his Musicor years, Jones developed a comic persona with a dark underside. In such tunes as "The Stranger's Me" and "Wrong Side of the World," there were intimations that the singer had lost his identity. Meanwhile, an album track such as 1968's "Between My House and Town" displayed his genius for underplaying a performance.
Jones moved to Epic Records in 1971 to record with Sherrill. Comfortable with a comic tune such as 1973's Braddock-penned "Nothing Ever Hurt Me (Half as Bad as Losing You)," as well as the sentimental "Love Lives Again," Jones worked at full strength. His 1976 full-length, Alone Again, stands as perhaps his best album, with the hapless persona perfectly projected on that collection's "A Drunk Can't Be a Man" and "Ain't Nobody Gonna Miss Me."
Jones continued to make fine records into the '80s, with "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and "I've Aged Twenty Years in Five" among the greatest country recordings. He enjoyed his last solo Top 10 country hit with 1989's "I'm a One-Woman Man," buoyed by Jones' irresistibly mischievous octave-dipping vocal performance.
Braddock, who co-wrote "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and penned the 1976 hit "Her Name Is ..." among many others for Jones, says The Possum remained unimpressed by the trappings of stardom.
"He was a very humble man, to the point that at one time, I thought it was almost self-effacing," remembers Braddock. "He came into Tree Publishing about 1974, and he was looking for some songs, and he played me a recording he had done of a song of mine. He said, 'I don't mean to bother y'all.' I said, 'What are you talking about? You're George Jones, and you can do anything you want.' "
In later years, Jones recorded duets with such partners as Randy Travis, and survived a serious 1999 automobile accident. Universally recognized as country's greatest singer, he continued recording, and his baritone remained as resonant as ever. At the time of his death, he was planning a yearlong farewell tour; that No-Show Jones will miss his own farewell concert, slated for November at Bridgestone Arena, seems like one parting jest from an artist who had a healthy sense of humor about himself. What cannot be disputed is that he achieved an eminence in his field that few performers enjoy. It may have been belated, but that seems appropriate for such a varied, shape-shifting, prolific artist.
Recording a cameo for country legend Charlie Louvin's 2007 Charlie Louvin, Jones impressed Nashville producer Mark Nevers, who had met Jones in the late '90s when he was engineering The Possum's 1999 Choices full-length.
"It took him about three or four times to get into George Jones voice," Nevers says. "People maybe don't understand how physical a singer he is. He's pushing a lot of air, and so for him to get to that point where it sounds like George Jones, and he's hitting the pitch, it's a physical effort."
The physicality of Jones' singing is amazing — his performances contain endless timbral and dynamic subtleties. The beauty of his melodic line puts him into a class with the finest vocalists of the era: Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Dusty Springfield. But the conception is his own, and its elegance belies its vernacular roots. Melancholy, absurd, joyous and open to possibility, he may have been the greatest popular music singer of the era. You won't get any argument from me.
For more on George Jones...Wise Guy
Another Side of The Possum