Friday, April 26, 2013

George Glenn Jones (1931 - 2013)

One of the most prolific artists of country music died this morning, from complications related to irregular blood pressure. He was 81.

Born in a log cabin in Saratoga, Texas (a town outside of Beaumont), George got his first guitar when he was nine, and was playing for change on the streets shortly thereafter. From there he went on to local radio shows. His first recorded hit in 1955, “Why Baby Why” made it to number four on the country charts, the first of many in a recording career that included 119 singles under his own name, 68 albums, 26 collaborative albums, 24 compilation albums ... one could go on. In 1956, he became a member of the Grand Olde Opry.

It was particularly in later years that he was hailed as "the greatest living country singer," with unique facial characteristics that earned him the nickname “Possum.” But it was not only his distinctive voice that lent to his critical acclaim. In the tradition of Hank Williams and other country artists, Jones lived out the songs that he wrote. It was a life of hard living, hard drinking, drug addiction, bouts with the law, and stormy marriages. There were four of the latter, the first when he was 19, which lasted only a year. But he is best known for his third marriage, to country singer-songwriter Tammy Wynette, whom he wed in 1969. Despite a reputation as an abusive and irresponsible husband, their tribulations were often the inspiration for their duets, and a musical collaboration that far outlasted the marriage, which ended in divorce in 1975. Even his failure to show up for performances inspired the song “No-Show Jones.” What's more, his 1996 arrest for riding a lawn mower on an open road was parodied in the music video “Honky Tonk Song.” His cameo appearances in other country music videos also found him riding on a lawn mower.

But it was during his fourth marriage in 1983 to Jenny Johnson, that he cleaned up his act, and she was considered instrumental in his recovery from addiction. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992, and was named a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2008. In 2012 he was presented with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement award. It was during this latter period that he recorded a song penned by Billy Yates and Mike Curtis entitled “Choices.”

I've had choices
Since the day that I was born
There were voices
That told me right from wrong
If I had listened
No I wouldn't be here today
Living and dying
With the choices I made

Among the many albums he recorded were collections of gospel hymns. Some might have thought him to be a hypocrite for this, but a man at his lowest on a Saturday night can still wish for his highest on a Sunday morning. Russell Moore speaks to this desperation of the heart in his First Things article.

He was the troubadour of the Christ-haunted South. The raw emotion, and even whispers of torture, in his voice can teach American Christianity much about the nature of sin and the longing for repentance ... This is not a man branding himself with two different and contradictory impulses. This was a man who sang of the horrors of sin, with a longing for a gospel he had heard and, it seemed, he hoped could deliver him. In Jones’ songs, you hear the old Baptist and Pentecostal fear that maybe, horrifically, one has passed over into the stage of Esau who, as the Bible puts it, “could not find repentance though he sought it with tears.”

For yours truly, there is a sadness that comes with the news of George Jones' passing, and a longing for days gone by. They were the days when a singer who billed himself as a country or country-western artist, was not of the comfortable suburban middle-class life, that permeated themes of the "countrypolitan" sound in the 1970s, nor the over-styled, stereotypical exurban refined redneck with designer jeans that populates the airwaves today, but one who was truly without pretense, without pre-packaging, who was genuinely “born and bred, cornbread fed.” That generation is passing, one at a time, and we will never see their like again.

If the failings of a man that were so well-published are to be forgiven him, let it serve as a reminder to us all, of the reality of the Divine Mercy, and our own need to call upon Him for ourselves.


Anonymous said...

Well said, every word.

Anonymous said...

Hands down my favorite of the golden age of country, even more than Cash I think. No one could do sad better than Jones. I had several chances to see him perform but didn't make it thinking "maybe next time." My great loss.