Editor’s Note: Country legend George Jones died two weeks ago, on April 26, 2013, in Nashville. Longtime area musicians John Howie Jr. and Tom Maxwell provided reflections on Jones. Below, Maxwell, meditates on Jones’ voice and why it had the impact it did. Meanwhile, Howie presents an overview of Jones’ life from the perspective of a budding country fan whose own band went on to open for Jones. Read that piece here.
George Jones is gone now, finally. It’s surprising he made it this long, given his once prodigious appetite for alcoholic and chemical refreshment. It’s possible that he wanted to follow his amphetamine-fueled and skeletal hero Hank Williams to an early grave, but no matter how many times George threw himself on that funeral pyre, it just wouldn’t light. Instead, he died a dignified old man, one who had largely quieted his demons.
In his wake are the many tales—well told, and not worth repeating here—about his many foibles: four wives, money problems, performing entire songs in a Donald Duck voice while coked out of his mind, skipping gigs and, of course, the iconic riding mower drive to the liquor store. That he was a fuck-up was never in dispute. We also got to hear once more, thanks to the man’s demise, the uniquely depressing “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and a few of his better-known and tortured ballads. Everyone agrees, with some qualification, that George Jones was (possibly) the greatest country music singer of all time. I don’t know why you’d want to stop there. In life, he was without peer; in death, he will define an entire form of musical expression.
If we go back into his career—beyond the hair-raising honesty of 1999’s “Choices,” past the dated novelty of “High-Tech Redneck,” before even the ’70s duets with Tammy Wynette and ’60s hits like “She Thinks I Still Care”—we arrive in the mid-to-late 1950s, when George was signed to the Starday and Mercury labels. Unlike Patsy Cline, who teamed up around this time with producer Owen Bradley to make string-laden country pop, George’s departure from Western Swing took the form of “hardcore honky tonk,” relentless two-step dance music with often harrowing lyrics about alcoholism and failed relationships. It is here that we see the formation of his inimitable style and phrasing. At first, only in his early 20s, George imitated his idols Hank Williams, Roy Acuff and Lefty Frizzell. When producer Pappy Daily asked him to sing like George Jones, he replied “I thought you wanted to sell some records.”
When he did find that voice, sung through clenched jaws, George Jones became an icon. He had the vocal acrobatics of Lefty and the ability to inhabit the emotional heart of a song like Hank. But what George Jones really sang like is a pedal steel guitar.
“I stole everything I ever heard,” admitted Ella Fitzgerald, “but mostly I stole from the horns.” It’s true; you can hear supple tenor saxophone bends of phrase in her voice, just as you can hear staccato trumpet blasts in Louis Armstrong’s. George Jones did not come from a jazz tradition. He didn’t perform with those instruments. What he heard, lying between his parents listening to the Grand Ole Opry, was fiddles and guitars and the metallic bite of a lap steel, the kind of slide guitar that accompanied his heroes. In time, the lap steel morphed into the pedal steel. It was still a horizontal guitar, played with a metal slide, but this version was given foot pedals, depressed to affect the pitch. In the hands of a competent player it creates swooping, crying melodies that clearly informed Jones’ phrasing. It’s plain as day on 1959s “Mr. Fool,” in the way he shoots up the octave, sliding and sustaining “But I have al-ways been a fool to cry for you,” or in the chorus, when the word “before” is wrung out through two full measures, George adding syllables as his voice tumbles down, like building a staircase just to fall farther.
When listening to George Jones and the pedal steel that accompanies him, it’s evident how alike the two are: the almost infinite sustain, the plaintive highs, the sudden modulations, the extraordinary range, the precise melodic pirouettes, and the dramatic, if almost histrionic, swoops. Both the man and the instrument trade in the notes between the notes.
Then there was his all-out assault on vowels. George Jones is to vowels what William Shatner is to cadence. Listen to the way he swallows the word “ring” in the chorus of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” or pretty much any word in “The Grand Tour” and try to explain why it’s all so affecting. What can’t be understood intellectually makes total sense emotionally.
Hank Williams sang like a hillbilly. You can listen to his records and know he was a Southerner. You might recognize his Alabama accent. George Jones’ singing voice cannot be completely identified as Texan. Instead, he’s Country with a capital C, more easily parodied than imitated, bending and distorting vowels every which way. If someone came up talking like, that you’d think they were having a stroke. But George wasn’t talking. He was communicating.
Many stories have come out about George Jones—some, in their outrageousness, probably too good to be true. Most of them center on the man’s personal failings as opposed to his artistic triumphs. There is one worth remembering, witnessed by a friend of a friend. In it, George is sitting by himself in a backstage canteen a couple decades ago. Bill Monroe, the single-handed inventor of bluegrass, walks in the room on his way out to the tour bus. Instead of a spoken greeting, George sings the first line of a traditional gospel song: “Some glad morning when this life is o’er…”
Without missing a beat or slowing his step, Bill harmonizes the rest of the line in his high lonesome tenor: “I’ll fly away.”
What a beautiful sound they made.