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R.I.P. George Jones

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Ben Tausig was moved to write about the capital-A artistry of the legendary country singer.

R.I.P. George Jones

It is tempting to wax nostalgic about George Jones as a symbol of country music’s erstwhile golden years. But he is an artist worth remembering in his own right, a musician who transcended the Nashville scene he so influenced. Molested until death by particularly insidious demons, Jones spent a life and career in public pursuit of becoming a better human being, never quite getting there but never surrendering hope, either. He was, in brief, supremely human, clinging to dignity in spite of ample failures.

Consider the dialogue created by listening to songs like “The Grand Tour” (1974) and “The Right Left Hand” (1987) side-by-side. Notwithstanding that “The Grand Tour” is much better, these two pieces in tandem offer a telling picture of Jones’s rocky but earnest relationship to marriage. (He went to the altar five times). “The Grand Tour” tells the wrenching story of a divorce through thick description of the objects in an empty house – a chair, a picture, clothes in the closet and, finally, the baby’s nursery. The anguish in Jones’s voice as the song reaches its climax could not have been summoned without firsthand experience, and the song stands as an iconic moment in country music history. We hear his mouth, typically half-closed to infuse his baritone with a mild warble, extend:

“The Right Left Hand,” by contrast, sees Jones committing at last to putting “that golden band / on the right left hand this time.” He did, indeed, remain with his fifth wife from 1983 onward.

Jones’s drinking songs, too, are a document of striving to be better. He could be brash, goofy, and fun, as in the early hit “White Lightning” (1965), but he could also be remarkably open about alcoholism. “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)” (1981) is sung from a vantage that passes right by vulnerability and into the domain of shame – “I lay my head on the wheel, and the horn begins honking / the whole neighborhood knows that I’m home drunk again.” Most of us, in such a moment, would hide, or perhaps confide in a trusted friend. But for Jones moments like this were the origin of poetry. He gave lyrical voice to instances when an ordinary person would be too sad to think.

In any genre – really, in any art form - it is rare and breathtaking for someone to subject their ugliest, most difficult experiences to an aesthetic treatment, let alone a treatment as sensitive as Jones was capable of. Though many of his best songs were written by other songwriters, there is no question that the pieces were sung as quasi-autobiographies. (He was famously meticulous in the compositions he chose.) Jones’s struggles with alcohol and cocaine were legion and well-documented, and he did not shy away from discussing them. He was larger than life in Nashville in the ‘70s, in particular, and his every run-in was the subject of intense public gossip. A segment of a documentary about his life shows a famous video of an arrest caught on film by a journalist:

Jones’s ongoing choice to reveal so much did not absolve him of his shortcomings. Listeners encounter him as a flawed person, who in all likelihood was tremendously difficult to know as a husband, friend, relative and musical collaborator. But in making himself available as a poet of the abject, he offered metaphors for the sort of misery that each of us experiences at some point, to varying degrees, but rarely can do much more than bury. I refrain from calling such a move admirable, but the degree of sacrifice it entails makes a strong claim to being the essence of capital-A Art.

Cultural warriors of a certain perspective disregard country music made after 1980 as probably jingoistic drivel, which is not entirely unfounded, though it ought to be noted that plenty of country made before 1980 was just as bad. Bobby Bare’s “God Bless America (Again)” and Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” have been rendered somewhat quaint by time, but there is no mishearing their rightist ideals. And it is equally possible to pick up echoes of progressivism, both then and now, from Loretta Lynn to Willie Nelson to Emmylou Harris. It is true, however, that the country music industry today often trades in defiant white hawkishness. Nashville, like Motown, was a hit factory powered by a compelling string of personalities, not least of all George Jones, but Bush-era country pivoted away from people and toward politics, where it claimed the right to speak for America and Christianity.

George Jones was never much for politics, and went on record rejecting the direction country music went in the 21st century. But his own musical life was marked by an abiding belief in forgiveness and redemption, and in truth, nothing could be more Christian than that.

By Ben Tausig

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