So, George Jones has gone, taking a great chunk of country music with him. Real country I mean, unairbrushed, unautotuned, okay not adverse to a schmaltzy production, but still, at its core, a simple, honest conversation about life and love. George Jones was an honest man. You could see it in the way he lived his life and you could hear it in his voice, particularly in all those heartbreak ballads, equal parts dignity and despair – which, when it comes down to it, is a good enough description of life.
I remember a conversation I had with Leonard Cohen in 2001, about what makes a singer great. Leonard, unsurprisingly, made disparaging comments on his own vocal skills, to which I replied that one of the things that had first drawn me to his voice was its honesty. I felt I could trust this singer, I said, even though I was too young to really understand what he was saying. Leonard nodded. What drew him to a singer, he said, was “that feeling of trust; I had never put it that way, but I think that’s so. Did you hear the last George Jones record? It’s a really great record. I like country music, but I love George Jones. His is the best voice ever. He’s working with the best musicians in Nashville and it’s an absolutely impeccable production – but still you hear it in the voice. That feeling of trust.”
Frank Sinatra once called Jones “the second best male singer in America”, presumably taking the top spot for himself. Jones’ phrasing, though different to Sinatra’s, was every bit as good. He knew instinctively how long to linger on a note to wring out its sadness and when to leave, before poignancy turned to pathos. He could turn a few simple words, just by the way he sang them, into a resonant, believable story.
He used to say that singing all those sad songs about pain and sorrow, about the bad things a man can do to a woman or a woman can do to a man, had been what drove him to the bottle. He would get so lost in the despair of the song, he said, that he drank. A lot. Many of his great records were made on alcohol. He was so drunk at shows sometimes that they had to help him onstage and prop him up. There were so many gigs he didn’t even make it to that they started calling him ‘No-Show Jones’ – a name that stuck so firmly he bought license plates for a half a dozen of his cars that began with the letters NOSHOW. There’s a famous story about Tammy Wynette, his third wife, confiscating his car keys, thinking it would stop him going into town to buy more liquor. He got on his tractor, and drove that instead. The marriage was as turbulent as his life was; by all accounts their divorce was the man-woman story that pained him more than anything else.
George Jones, one of the greatest voices America has produced, was midway through a farewell tour when he died today, the 26th April, 81 years old. R.I.P.