George Jones had contrarian appeal for young country fans, artists
George Jones reminded Andrew Dalton of his dad, for better and for worse. “I came out of your typical teenage punk past, and though I liked Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, I didn’t really ‘get’ George Jones until I was about 22 or 23,” said Dalton, a onetime DJ who is now a reporter at the Associated Press’ Los Angeles bureau.
“I was siting in a bar in Santa Cruz when ‘She Thinks I Still Care’ came on and I knew that was it. There’s no element of cool there -- it’s just beautiful drinking music with no attempt at modernity. Ironically, he became the one artist my dad and I could agree on,” Dalton added.
Jones’ radiant voice and devastating phrasing was the spark that led Dalton to spin records at a regular classic-country night at the Echo Park dive bar Little Joy in 2002.
Dalton’s fondly-recalled weekly night (co-hosted with Little Joy’s former manager, Joe McGraw) was one of the earliest incursions of hipsters into the neighborhood, who drowned their artful sorrows to vinyl LPs from Jones and his peers. But the night was also a sign of the guileless appeal Jones had for young fans who grew bored with alt-country cliches and were searching for something more emotional and timeless in country music.
“George Jones always spoke of my grandfather as his hero, which is funny today how he was easily one of my heroes, said Holly Williams, the singer-songwriter and granddaughter of Hank Williams whose album “The Highway” arrived to much acclaim this year. “He wrapped his voice around a lyric in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever heard before, with so much emotion pouring out seamlessly and simply.”
“He was an outlaw, a rebel, and a hero. Elliott Smith once said his idea of Heaven was George Jones singing at the gates, I fully agree with him and I’m sure everyone up there is smiling,” she said.
Jones’ vast catalog -- he famously scored chart hits in five different decades -- provided plenty of entry points for young fans to discover him without the baggage of country-music trend cycles. From early hits such as “White Lightning” through his 1980s resurgence with “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” the crew-cut or helmet-haired Jones was just square enough to be a contrarian choice if you ran with a hip crowd. But his voice paired darkness and beauty in very grown-up ways, offering the hints of real sorrow that young singers or music fans crave to know for themselves.
“It’s just a staggering body of work -- his ‘80s stuff was just transformative for me even though I came to it much later,” said Matthew Houck, the singer-songwriter who performs under the name Phosphorescent.
Houck previously recorded an album of Willie Nelson covers, “To Willie.” Though his freewheeling and experimental new album “Muchacho” (for the indie label Dead Oceans) seems a world apart from the Jones’ dulcent Nashville sounds, Houck appreciates Jones’ frankness about his alcohol and drug struggles. He hopes his own music can hit Jones’ sweet spot between lived-in pain and painstaking musicianship.
Neither of those traits may be especially cool, but together they make for all the best country music.
“His voice conveyed so much emotion, it was like a grown man crying but he’s always in tune,” Houck said. “I think we’re definitely going to play some George Jones covers on this tour.”
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