George Jones was the voice of heartbreak
To get a full sense of country singer George Jones, who died Friday at age 81, it’s important to understand the workings of his complicated, admittedly troubled heart. The engine of his remarkable talent, it powered Jones to transform well-crafted words and melody into universal truths.
To country music’s benefit, Jones never hesitated to examine the struggles of his lonely heart (or overextended liver), both the consequences of its actions and the destruction that often accompanied its failings.
When Jones sang about “last night,” chances are he was drunk and jealous, or too drunk to remember what happened. Singing the morning after, he’d embody the fear, heartbreak and disappointment with a voice so expressive that listeners couldn’t help but forgive him — all the way to the top of the charts. He’s responsible for dozens of Billboard hits, and inspired a generation of country singers and songwriters.
During his rise in the mid-1950s through his prime in the ‘60s through the early ‘80s, Jones was country music’s greatest interpreter of heartbreak, the king of regret, a man whose seemingly effortless way with a line remains a wonder to behold. He was the most important male country singer of his generation, one who helped ferry a genre from honky tonks into the American mainstream.
“He stopped loving her today,” sang Jones in his biggest hit, a bittersweet song that ruled rural America, filling a beleaguered, post-Watergate society with a melody of love that ends only in death. Earlier in his career, he offered the witty hit “She Thinks I Still Care,” which described a secret obsession.
But the weepers far outnumbered his hopeful songs. Jones sang in perfect harmony about matrimonial and personal disharmony — a subject he understood well. He was married four times, drank cases of vodka and at one point had to be confined to a straitjacket in a mental institution. Despite the demons, though, for a shining (and tempestuous) time in the 1970s, he and his then-wife Tammy Wynette were the king and queen of country music — the Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert of the era.
From a career perspective, Jones’ thematic preferences as both a singer and a songwriter couldn’t have been better timed. With divorce rates skyrocketing, Jones strummed and crooned from a front row seat where, guitar in hand, he dealt in musical Polaroids of broken homes.
“Step right up, come on in, if you’d like to take the grand tour / Of a lonely house that once was home sweet home,” he sings in “The Grand Tour,” a forlorn carnival barker hawking heartbreak. He guides the listener through the house — the chair where his long-gone wife used to sit on his lap, the bedroom where they loved (“Lord knows we had a good thing going here”), the nursery that held their child, where “she left me without mercy / Taking nothing but our baby and my heart.”
His version of Jerry Chesnut’s “A Good Year for the Roses” manages to nail the wonder of life amid a world in ruin. A perfect country song, his voice soars as he assesses his empty house: In “the sight of lipstick on the cigarettes there in the ashtray,” he finds a thread of comfort that “at least your lips caressed them while you packed.” Dumbfounded at her departure, Jones can only think about the front yard: “What a good year for the roses, many blooms still linger there,” he sings, The lawn could use tending, he notes, but it’s “funny I don’t even care.”
As was his way, he sang “A Good Year for the Roses” woefully, with a voice that in its prime suggested Hank Williams, his avowed hero, minus the nasal whine. Rather, Jones possessed manly heft and an astounding ability to both hit a note and sustain it with the clarity of a pedal steel guitar.
But make no mistake, he could be menacing, a word that came to be associated with Jones for much of his life. To sugarcoat his worst impulses is to ignore the truth: When Jones was drunk, coked up or otherwise out of his mind, he turned bad. In “I Lived to Tell It All,” Jones’ astonishingly honest 1996 autobiography, he tells of being drunk on his tour bus and shooting five bullets from a .38 near a teetotaling manager who wouldn’t join him in finishing a bottle of vodka.
Jones once drove a lawn mower to a liquor store after his wife hid his car keys, and then sang about it in a ditty called “Honky Tonk Song”: “I saw those blue lights flashing over my left shoulder / He walked right up and said ‘Get off that riding mower.’” Jones was one of a kind — in both the best and worst use of the term.
He did this throughout a nearly 60-year career that produced dozens of studio albums. Hobbled by drug addiction in the mid- and late ‘70s, Jones, nonetheless, continued to produce records and worked with MCA throughout the 1990s. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992, and seven years later, his 1999 album “Cold Hard Truth” went gold. He won a Grammy Award for its hit single “Choices.” And, ever stubborn, Jones famously declined to perform the song at the Country Music Assn. Awards after producers wouldn’t let him play it in its entirety. It’s this determination and honesty that continue to resonate.
“Country music is the most honest music in the world, and I think people who sing it should be honest,” he wrote in his autobiography. “A country music fan is the most loyal creature on earth if you’re honest with them. I’m not proud of some of the things that I’ve done, and I haven’t gone around talking about all of them, but if I was asked, and if I answered, I answered honestly.”
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