George Jones: A National Treasure
That voice. Country-rock icon Gram Parsons called him "The King of Broken Hearts" and routinely wept onstage while covering "She Once Lived Here" with The Flying Burrito Brothers. Elvis Costello wrote "Stranger in the House" as a duet for them to sing at a time when Costello was still rock's angry young punk. Rolling Stones badass Keith Richards said that he's "a national treasure and should be treated accordingly."
George Jones is not just the greatest country singer of all time. He is universal enough to have not just fellow country artists gushing about him for more than 50 years. He has had punks like the Meat Puppets covering his tunes and R&B great Solomon Burke singing his praises as "more than a legend." Hell, even Frank Sinatra, in all his narcissistic glory, called him "the second best white male singer."
There is simply nobody like George Jones.
It is the sound of raw emotion. If Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer convey sneering anger in their vocals, then George Jones delivers pure heartbroken sadness, an open wound filled with rock salt. Nursing a broken heart, drinking whiskey and listening to a George Jones record, you know you're not alone, that George is right there with you and he feels your pain. There is an odd comfort in knowing that George Jones has been there, too, and he has survived the pain. You know deep down, even through a self-loathing and boozy fog, that you will too.
Much has been made of George Jones' bad behavior in the past — his tumultuous marriage to his counterpart, Tammy Wynette, included heavy drinking and pulled shotguns, his late-'70s coke habit caused him to miss more shows than he played, earning him the sobriquet "No Show" Jones, and a late-'90s drunken car crash almost killed him. He's had scrapes with the law that Sid Vicious would have worn like a badge of badness (check out Jones' mid-'70s drunk driving arrest on YouTube). Beneath it all, he's a tough little scrapper from east Texas who idolized Hank Williams and nearly died any number of times like Hank Sr., wasted and lonely.
But that voice.
Take any current country singer — reigning CMA vocalist of the year Brad Paisley, for example — and try to have him not sound laughable singing Jones' "These Days (I Barely Get By)," with its sorrowful lyrics: "Put my only two on my favorite horse / He lost by a nose and I cried."
It would sound comically maudlin coming from anybody else, but in Jones' hands, the song becomes a tour de force of despair, of hanging onto life by a fraying thread.
In the '70s, when Jones, weighing 105 pounds and wired on coke and alcohol, and fellow legends such as Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings, Buck Owens, and Faron Young all walked the planet, you'd be called crazy if you said George Jones would outlive them all. But he has, and at 77, he is among (along with Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson) the last of a dying breed, an honest-to-God country singer without pretensions who is still playing over 100 shows a year.
Jones hasn't played the Celebrity Theatre in a decade. His voice is still remarkably as it once was, a three-octave wonder with an aching, high lonesome tenor and a sorrow-soaked baritone. It doesn't matter what kind of music you listen to, country, punk or classic rock. Go see George Jones while you still can and revel within 100 feet of someone who is inarguably one of the greatest singers of all time — of any genre.
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