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George Jones: An All-American Genius

Nowhere will George Jones be mourned as soberly, effusively, and proudly as in Nashville, and this is as it should be. The Texas-born singer, who died at 81 in Nashville's Vanderbilt University Medical Center on April 26, was more widely admired in country music than anyone this side of Hank Williams himself, and he was singleminded in his devotion to its idiom and audience. He complained like all the old-timers about the musclebound boom-boom of modern country radio, and in 1999 boycotted a CMA show that wouldn't let him perform the entirety of his great late hit "Choices." He could be a stubborn cuss, too. But unlike such heroic contemporaries as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and the late Johnny Cash, he had no outlaw in him, and on the rare occasions when he essayed to a crossover duet, Ray Charles, Keith Richards, and Elvis Costello crossed over to him.

No surprise, then, that as the obituaries piled up and the tributes rolled in, the consensus ran to "greatest male vocalist in country music history" (Peter Cooper of The Tennessean) or "greatest singer of real country music" (disciple Alan Jackson). No surprise either, unfortunately, that the headline at one major site read "Country Music Legend Dies at 81," saving the legend's cognomen for the next click. Can you imagine Elvis Costello, Aretha Franklin, or even Willie or Merle suffering such treatment? Clearly, one consequence of George Jones's devotion to country music is that he never became a household name anywhere else. So this is the perfect time to jack the praise up a notch. Brad Paisley can't be the only one, but his tweet did the job: "My friend, the greatest singer of all time, has passed. To those who knew him, our lives were full. To those of you who don't, discover him now."

Maybe Paisley got carried away by grief; maybe he meant to say "country singer." It would be willful in any case to posit a rigid hierarchy or chant "He's number one." But it would be also be willful to deny that Jones belongs in the very top rank of a vocal pantheon that straddles boundaries of genre and race, that he exemplifies as well as anyone the American idea that truly great singing is too large of spirit and generous of outreach for the precision of pitch and clarity of intonation the European classical tradition imposes. And even within that first rank he commands special status. Great singers like Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, John Lennon, Willie Nelson, and Hank Williams deploy the conversational so cannily that we sometimes forget how strong and capable their voices are. But Jones belongs to a smaller cohort: singers whose genius for the colloquial is augmented by physical instruments of incalculable and inescapable power, flexibility, and depth. Frank Sinatra. Aretha Franklin. Maybe Ella Fitzgerald. Insert favorite diva here.

It is said of George Jones that he had a voice from the moment the doctor slapped his bottom, that as a runty kid busking with his mail-order guitar he could earn more money than his alcoholic father could with his aching back. Compare early fast ones like "Why Baby Why" or "White Lightning" to the uptempo classics of his heroes Acuff, Frizzell, and Williams and you can't miss the sheer size of what he brought to bear on those ditties--a resonance of timbre and elasticity of note value that registers like a bonus point with every line. On famed ballads like "The Window Up Above" and obscure ones like "Mr. Fool," that size is sometimes almost overwhelming. Yet note two things about this miracle. One, it wasn't enough--the itty bitty street singer was 24 before he cracked the country chart with "Why, Baby, Why," because he took that long to start singing like George rather than Roy, Lefty, or Hank. And two, there's never a whiff of showoff there--never a hint that the size he's packing makes him better than you.

Especially in country music, where the heart has more reasons than it knows what to do with, now is when I'm supposed to tell you how "soulful" and "heartfelt" George Jones's music was, how the pain you hear in his voice was always his own--or more shrewdly, how he was a method actor who empathized with the simple human tales of love, loss, substance abuse, and dang foolishness conveyed in the songs he often wrote at first and later usually interpreted. Not that there's no truth to this truism--generally speaking, most good singers do something of the sort when they're on their game. It may well be that the specifics of Jones's life, especially as regards alcohol and cocaine--Jones was a reticent man, and having read one biography, one autobiography, and a bunch of superb profiles, I still have trouble getting a bead on his romantic emotions--enhanced this aspect of his art. It's also likely that his reticence bespoke an insecurity as inextricable from his biochemistry as his voice was from his musculature. But as one of the rare New Yorkers who saw Jones perform in three different decades without getting on a plane, I never forget that night in a Long Island roadhouse when he forgot the words to "Still Doin' Time" and his guitarist fed them to him one line at a time. Was that empathy on the installment plan? Or was something else in play--some combination of craft, habit, and a physical gift that passeth all understanding?

As with Sinatra, who was nicknamed "The Voice" as a kid yet peaked as the mature man of the world of the Capitol years, that gift literally deepened when Jones started collaborating with Billy Sherrill at Epic in his forties. It was Sherrill who encouraged him to explore his low end on elaborate ballads epitomized by what is widely considered the greatest of all country records, "He Stopped Loving Her Today"--on which the spoken bridge was recorded a year after the sung parts because while Jones sang drunk just about every time he hit the stage, he couldn't talk straight when under the influence. Jones's life was at its most deranged and tempestuous from the time he split with third wife Tammy Wynette in late 1974 until--shored up by the superhuman support and saintly patience of his fourth wife, Nancy--he kicked first cocaine and then for the most part alcohol in 1982 and 1983. Yet somehow Sherrill extracted some of Jones's greatest recorded music from between the cracks of that living ruin. And with all credit to how respectfully Tony Brown tended Jones at MCA in the '90s, it's his Sherrill productions that stand tallest.

On what evidence could anyone deny that the struggle every one of those songs entailed is audible in the performances? Yet we can hear so much else as well. He's become an expert microphone singer, using it to shade his delivery in a tradition that dates back to Bing Crosby. As with most major singers, the phrasing is a wonder, and if what sounds witting with Sinatra and instinctual with Franklin seems impulsive with Jones, that's in keeping with who we believed him to be. A need to not soar but merely lift toward thoughtful or regretful reflection overcomes him two or three times a verse. He builds a semantic instability closely related to doubt into just how firmly he chooses to nail the notes--an instability few voices are built to convey, and that never damages the melodies he prizes. Yet for all his technical bedazzlement, he always sounds not just country but, in the best sense, common. It's not just that he's one of us--it's that he wants to be one of us.

Perhaps that's why, where Sinatra and Franklin inspired acolytes who seldom if ever approach their musical impact, Jones is not only the greatest of country singers but the most influential. It isn't just Alan Jackson--singers as distinct as Randy Travis, Garth Brooks, and Brad Paisley himself fruitfully emulate his combination of resonant gravity and unassuming nonchalance even if they never equal it. And for sure that common touch is why George Jones was an all-American genius. Those who never got to know him can thank another product of American genius that through the miracle of recording technology they still can.

Billboard, May 11, 2013