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Not just the notes, the words, but the bend to his voice bore straight into places in your gut that were so hollowed out, most people pretended they don’t exist.

GEORGE JONES REMEMBERED

Holly Gleason Cries in Her Beer Over the Death of a Country Legend
An appreciation by Holly Gleason

George Jones scared me. Growing up, I spent time on a farm near a dynamite fuse factory that employed what my mother less than charitably referred to as “Hill Williams”—that brazen, blazing emotionalism, too fraught, too full-tilt, too frenzied to contain, which would come pouring out of the neighbor’s screened windows in the summer, some kind of blaze of twisted, lonely and madness-approaching ache.

No one should have to feel like that, let alone sing songs like “The Grand Tour,” “Window Up Above” or “She Thinks I Still Care.” Steel guitars wept kerosene puddles all over nights too humid to move much of nothing, and that voice trembled under the force of the ragged feelings; I lay in my single bed, listening to the tortured caterwaul just wishing it would stop.

To see him then, glazed with the sheen of drug-addled sweat, swaddled in polyester leisure suits, garish qiana shirts unbuttoned too low and a greasy pompadour, he screamed white trash authenticity.

The headlines ratified the notion he lived these songs harder than he sang ’em, and he sang ’em hard. Riding a tractor-mower eight miles to get a drink; a manager getting busted for drug-trafficking; upending a dining room table and spiriting Tammy Wynette away from her then-husband, to make her his third wife and a duet partner whose musical kineticism outlasted their marriage by almost two decades.

Chemistry was so much a part of Jones’ appeal—and terror. When he and Wynette, whose marriage was a stormy series of bust-ups, make-ups and duets that let a pre-reality-TV America peak in their bedroom window, sang “Golden Ring” or “We’re Gonna Hold On,” they were the poster couple not for Country music, so much as a generation struggling with the notion that divorce was a very real thing.

Indeed, it was Wynette who helped Jones get free of Starday Records so he could join her at Epic Nashville. In that emancipation of the man they called “Possum,” Jones found his first true creative foil: Billy Sherrill.

Still the end of his stormy can’t-live-with/without-her relationship with Wynette triggered a downward spiral that many thought the Vidor, Texas-raised Jones would never survive. Music, especially a classic of love that only fades with death written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” and the stand-down temerity of a woman named Nancy Sepulveda, who fought vipers, addiction and bad influences to stand by her man, brought him back from the brink.

“He Stopped Loving Her Today,” considered by many the finest country song ever written, went on to win a Grammy—and returned Jones to prominence, possibly eclipsing his earlier popularity and soap opera relationship with Wynette. Suddenly, he was an established standard of greatness, even as he white-knuckled demons and the well-deserved nickname “No Show Jones.”

“Still Doing Time” and “I Always Get Lucky With You” followed directly.

Barbara Mandrell further validated his return when she invoked the note-bending vocalist in her chart-topping “I Was Country (When Country Wasn’t Cool),” extending the vowels “I remember circling the drive-in, and turning up Guh-ohhhhrrrr-GE… Jones” with a melodic arc that spiraled upwards.
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Whether for the reckless intensity of his life or the charging-the-wall velocity of his vocals, Jones was a beacon for punks and rockers alike. Keith Richards and Gram Parsons bonded over the boozy-vocal turns, while James Taylor wrote the plangent “Bartender’s Blues” about him and Elvis Costello made his #1 “Good Year for the Roses” the centerpiece of his hard countrypolitan departure Almost Blue.

The man who couldn’t walk a straight line even when he toed the mark found a new creative stride, as well as a new generation of fans who recognized his unwavering vocal style. Ladies & Gentlemen, My Very Special Guests included Pops and Mavis Staples, Linda Ronstadt, Taylor and Costello, as well as Waylon, Willie, Emmylou, Tammy and former band member Johnny Paycheck. He followed it with Ladies Choice, and a run of retro-modern singles that would culminate in 1985 with “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” an enjoinder not so much to the Dwight Yoakams, Steve Earles and Rodney Crowells as the now-forgotten chart heroes of the day who lacked depth, life and brio in the way they attacked their music.

Jones would fall apart over and over again. Battles with booze, bad business deals, poor decisions, but always the music remained. Whether it was the swaggering all-star CMA Vocal Event “I Don’t Need Your Rocking Chair” from Walls Can Fall or the sobering reckoner “Choices” from his The Cold, Hard Truth, the latter-day Jones was just as ferocious, just as committed, just brutal in his ability to hurl himself at what he sang.

Once upon a time, Dan Baird, the gap-toothed front man of the Georgia Satellites, and I stood in my kitchen arguing “Haggard or Jones”—the hillbilly cousin of the equally rousing game of opinion “Beatles or Stones”—with such vehemence, my always-demure cocker spaniel Zelda started barking. I, a sucker for writers and exhaled vocals that feel like the byproduct of one’s thoughts as well as devotee of urban rejection for a more populist reality, was a thorn in the side of the moonshine gutbucket vocalese Baird preferred.

Dagger-brandishing and razor-wielding, it was the sort of passion only a debate of great art can inspire. Each of us admired the other’s choice, but it was blood-sport and to the mat arguing. We both won, because it was celebrating such extreme talent; but exhausting in the limits we took it.

That sort of urgency of appreciation fueled cow-punks from Lone Justice to X, the Blasters to the Cramps. It forged the styles of post-traditionalists ranging from Alan Jackson, Mark Chesnutt and Garth Brooks to Patty Loveless, Kelly Willis and Lee Ann Womack.

Kenny Chesney, arguably the biggest ticket-seller of this century, was a hardcore country singer trying to make his way when he was picked to open the George Jones/Tammy Wynette reunion tour in 1995. For a kid whose first concert was George Jones and Conway Twitty with his mom on a Thanksgiving in Knoxville, the honor was telling.

Being asked to ride back to Nashville on Jones’ jet after a concert on that tour showed him a lot about the generosity of legends. I know, because I found out this morning by text from the Country star trying to reckon with the passage of an artist who was as much a father figure as a friend in the business.

The thing about the legends who’re dying out: they knew how to embrace the young, even as they stood their ground. Jones never bothered with trying to keep up, he just wanted to sing his songs as hard as he could as long as he was able.

Though he’d been in the hospital for several days, there were shows booked through a final superstar appreciation concert at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena in November. He may’ve needed the money—he spent as freely as he lived—but it’s as much he couldn’t imagine a life without singing.

Like the true bluesmasters, people like Albert Collins careening into the night behind the wheel of his tour bus en route to the next gig, it’s the music that feeds their fire. If they didn’t sing, they might as well die.

Even then, the inevitable is just that. For Jones, who cheated death more times than anyone might imagine, maybe death was afraid of the hard liver who had vocal chords like a chain saw: capable of powering through any emotional jam, dismantling the most towering agony or surrendering to a cavernous regret.

George Jones knew no shame, and that’s his triumph. If he could snort and cavort on a song like “White Lightning,” romp through the horse track busted-romance metaphor of “The Race Is On” or concede the unrelenting yearning of “When the Grass Grows Over Me,” his gut instinct is spot on.

This is the blue collar somewhere just above Tom Waits’ loser vagrancy and slightly below Springsteen’s sweat-stained under-shirted, but somehow getting by populous. Southern in ways Yankees will never understand, no matter what part of the Mason Dixon, Jones spoke to them imperceptibly. Not just the notes, the words, but the bend to his voice bore straight into places in your gut that were so hollowed out, most people pretended they don’t exist.

Shuddering in the cold of left-behind, only Jones could give the proper exhausted flicker to the lonesome tableau of eternity without her. In “A Good Year for the Roses,” he put it right out there:

“I can hardly bare the site of lipstick on the cigarettes there in the ashtray
Lying cold the way you left’em, but at least your lips caressed them…while you packed
The half filled cup of coffee you poured but didn’t drink
At least you thought you wanted it
That’s so much more than I can say for me…”

I’ve been driving around all day, just listening to George Jones. Well, driving and crying and trying to write something that could contain all that grief and sorrow.

In a world where his voice held oceans of pain, bore witness to unthinkable betrayals and loss, singed us like a branding iron of desire unrealized or abandoned, he was—and we didn’t have to. If you had a pocket full of quarters, a rocks glass with something brown, no ice and a decent jukebox in the kind of forgotten tavern you’d call a joint, he’d submerge you ‘til the aching stopped.

It wouldn’t be gone, or even forgotten, but somehow he’d absorb your pain—and let you get back to the living once again. That kind of alchemy doesn’t happen anymore, and thank God it happened once.

Somewhere, here on the side of the road, I’m crying. Not for an 81-year-old man who lived beyond the brink and then some, but for me. Having heard him set a moment ablaze with Patty Loveless on the CMA Vocal Event-winning “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me,” I know the scent of kerosene, gasoline and want as the match hits it—and that’s something I will never smell again.

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