Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper – George Jones

Tim Tooher | 28th April 2013

Tim Tooher pays tribute to George Jones, one of the true great voices of American music:

There are singers you love, singers whose songs you’ve carried with you for years, who’ve sung the songs that have soundtracked your life. They’re the great singers. The ones who use their voices to say things you don’t have the words for. The ones who use their voices to shape sound into emotion.

Then there are the very few who take that magic one step further, whose voices become part of you, whose voices can control the beat of your heart and the flow of your blood. The ones who can stop time with just a swoop, a soar, a barely-there pause. The ones who don’t just mirror your emotions, but magnify them and twist them and, if needed, heal them. They’re the truly great singers, the greatest singers of all, and they are as rare as hen’s teeth, and last Friday they became even rarer still, as one of their number died.

George Jones was 81 years old and he was a vocal magician, a man with a voice you could lose yourself in. If you want proof, listen to “A Good Year For The Roses”. It’s one of the greatest of country songs, but as good as the lyric and melody are, it’s the vocal that transforms it from a great record to something more akin to great art. Something that feels like it will stand every test that time can throw at it. The song is conversational, a man talking to himself as he nurses a whisky to silence the ghosts in his house and his life, and George’s voice rides it like the tide, with the strength of the ocean, and yet the lightness and subtlety of a hummingbird. You could listen to it a thousand times, but each time there’d still be something new to send a shiver up your spine and make the hairs on your arms stand on end.

Where does a man learn to sing like that? Tradition runs through country music’s veins. Jimmy Rodgers, Hank Williams, Bob Willis, Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Roy Acuff, and many others, were all men who left their mark – and George Jones drank deep from the wells they dug. There’s a story about Lefty Frizzell listening to Jimmy Rodgers when he was a boy and pushing his head as far as he could into the gramophone trumpet so as better to absorb every ounce of light and shade in the Singing Brakeman’s voice. Follow the line from Jimmy to Lefty and keep going and you’ll soon find George, and like those who came before him, you can hear the jazz that was an element of country music from the very start in every note that George sang. Jazz clubs, the mountains, the church, the oil fields, dancehalls. You can hear them all in George’s music; it’s the richness of the cultural earth in which country music has its roots that gives it so much of its emotional power.

The great country singers knew how to inhabit a song and none did that better than George. He was Johnny Cash’s favourite singer, Merle Haggard thinks he was maybe the very best country singer of all, and today one obituary claims he was the very best singer to have been recorded in popular music, rating him higher than other sculptors of song such as Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin. I’m not sure these things need to be measured, but if you’re so inclined, there’s definitely a case to be made. Just listen to him singing “I Always Get Lucky With You”, written by the aforementioned Merle Haggard, another of the great student-turned-teachers of country music. The melody may be sublime but again it’s George’s voice, as light as a feather, slipping from resignation to optimism and back again in the beat of a heart, that makes the record transcendent. It’s a master class in control and restraint, one that belies the popular image of the man as an out-of-control drunk,

His nickname, “No Show” Jones, was hard earned. For years George’s life was often in disarray. As far back as 1959, George’s number 1 country hit, “White Lightning”, required 83 takes to get down right as he was drinking so much during the session. There were years of trashed hotel rooms, brawls, missed shows, missed recording sessions. Once when his wife hid the keys to his cars so he couldn’t drive to buy more alcohol, he rode his lawnmower into town instead. There was an episode where he shot at a friend’s car, out-of-control cocaine use, he even took to sometimes singing as Donald Duck on stage. It’s a miracle that his voice remained intact, but it did and as late as 1999, he could still record a track as great as the confessional “Choices”, which dealt with his drinking.

After George first heard the rough mix of the song in the studio, he got into his car and headed home, pleased with the knowledge that he’d cut a record of unusual beauty. He was so excited that he called his step-daughter from his car phone to play her the song over the car’s stereo. Fumbling with the controls, trying to cue the tape, George didn’t notice the bridge that his car was heading straight towards. He was oblivious as car ploughed into concrete. After the impact, he was trapped in the crumpled vehicle for two hours whilst a rescue crew tried to cut him free. Then, on the way to the hospital, his heart stopped twice, and, with a collapsed lung and torn liver, he had to spend eleven days on a ventilator just to stay alive. An open bottle of vodka was found under the seat of the wrecked car; George had been drinking again. The recovering alcoholic hadn’t quite recovered, though he managed another 13 years, playing concerts and occasionally recording, his voice by now a less accurate instrument, but still capable of communicating like few others.

His 2006 duet with Merle Haggard of Merle’s own “Footlights”, which George himself said was one of his very favourite songs, is a song about a man beaten down by the road, by the endless touring, drinking, by having to put on a show, by, as he said himself, singing so many sad songs, night after night, carrying the burden of expressing everyone’s inner pain. His voice is ragged and damaged, straining to do what was once so effortless. The loss of power is almost as affecting as the power that had been there before. It’s telling that this song meant so much to George, you just need to watch Merle singing it acoustic on the George Jones Show on YouTube to see what it meant to him. He must have felt it told his own story, yet he never seemed prepared to stop. He had shows booked until the end of this year, on what was being billed as a farewell tour, a new album of duets with Dolly Parton was planned too.

Now, though, he definitely has played his last show and all we’re left with is his music, much not worthy of his voice, but more than enough of it sublimely realised. There are many songs to choose from: “Why Baby Why”, “I’m Gonna Burn Your Playhouse Down”, “Cup Of Loneliness”, “She Still Thinks I Care”, “Walk Through This World With Me”, “We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds” with Melba Montgomery, “Say It’s Not You”, “The Grand Tour”, “Bartender’s Blues”, If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)”, “Cold Hard Truth”, “Sing Me Back Home”, fifty years worth of records.

Nick Tosches described George as “the spirit of country music, plain and simple.” Now he’s gone, but that spirit lives on in the music he’s left behind, and in the work of the people he influenced. There’s a video on YouTube of George singing “He Stopped Loving Her Today” in concert only ten days before he died. His voice has gone, the ability to shift effortlessly through the octaves departed, but the naked emotion is still there. George was far more than just an incredibly gifted technical singer, his voice had something that contained emotional truth, a grain, a timbre, a special colour, that technical skill alone could never replicate. As incredible as it is to hear him sing at the height of his powers, like a Nijinsky of song, it was the truth in his voice that made him so special, the quality of sound that he produced, which seemed to speak to and for everyone who heard his music. Thanks to his records, even though he’s no longer with us in person, he’ll always be around to understand, share and lessen our pain any time we need him.