Monday, April 29, 2013

GEORGE JONES Last Gasp: Sings "He Stopped Loving Her Today" March 2013

"You never know when you're gonna pass away," George Jones said on his 80th birthday. He admitted, "If anybody should've been gone a long time ago…" odds would've been on him.

That quote, as well as a performance of "He Stopped Loving Her Today" about a month before he died, make up the download below

And the image below? Damn sad when his website reflected that he was "No Show Jones" for the last time....and there were tickets still being sold for concerts he would never, ever play.

"They call me 'No Show Jones,'" was how The Possum often opened his gigs, a triumphant chuckle at his own expense, comparing his nickname to the more theatrical ones from Kenny, Johnny and the others who wore costumes and were far better known to mainstream America. George? His years with Tammy Wynette were the last in which he fussed with an on stage wardrobe. After that, and sober in his golden years, he looked like any guy in the audience, wearing what looked like Haggar slacks and some semi-garish leisure shirt. Everybody could identify with that common-named guy on stage. Only the hair spray that turned his white-hair into a kind of meringue, was any sign that he was a performer. Aside from that voice.

The lead line from USA Today's obit:

"Hank Williams may have set country music's mythology and Johnny Cash its attitude, but Jones gave the genre its ultimate voice. With recordings that spanned 50 years...Jones influenced generations of country singers and was considered by many to be the greatest of them all." Yes, some 168 times on the charts, from 1955's "Why Baby Why" to "Country Boy" in 2010 with Charlie Daniels…and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.

But was he revered the way Hank and Johnny were? Not really. Because he was pure country and rarely had a crossover hit. And because his private life was not of romantic or heroic tragedy, but the humiliation of self-described insanity, paranoia, and pathetic drunken failure. Horribly enough, while enjoying his greatest success, the Award-winning "He Stopped Loving Her Today," George was too drunk or coked to perform on TV or in shows, could be found sitting in a car dirty and incoherent, was in debt by a million dollars, and often talking in tongues — — voices in his head coming out like Donald Duck or Walter Brennan. Riding a lawn mower to a liquor store because his car keys had been taken from him, was typical of the average drunken fool, not a "tragic star." Altercations with highway cops, and blackout rages at women did not get him sympathy in the press and those around him shunned him as they would any hopeless alkie. Abandoned by his band, divorced three times, he barely had a friend in the world...and the only one had him hauled away to a mental hospital.

There may have been glamor for the "Man in Black" who was photographed in almost heroic poses of defiance and despair as he fought his demons, but things were just ugly for "The Possum," until his fourth marriage in the early 80's, and sober middle-age. But even then, he lacked a manager and a music producer to give him the direction Johnny Cash had, and get him the broader audience he deserved.

Jones was often given that left-handed compliment of, "I don't like country music, but I like your stuff." Indeed, George was one of the very few singers who could save even weak material. Frank Sinatra said he was "the second greatest singer in America," and if the two had anything in common, it was a directness on stage. Sinatra didn't dress up much beyond the average guy either, except for a tux in Vegas. Sinatra sang in a way that made the lyrics matter, and he could get the best nuance out of any line. Keith Richards, Linda Ronstadt…there were a lot of varied artists lining up to get a chance to duet with George Jones. His peers admired him too. Waylon Jennings: “If we all could sound like we wanted to, we'd all sound like George Jones."

More than sounding like George Jones…a singer should sing as if that song is being sung right from the heart, right at the moment, made up on the spot. I must've heard dozens of different live versions of "He Stopped Loving Her Today" in concert, and you know, George did not sing it the same way twice. He never phoned it in. He found some way of keeping it fresh. Even on the version below, which is sadly more of a last gasp than singing, he's performing like it's the very first time...and like he just wrote it himself.

Jones fans knew this, and even as he changed record labels over the years, they supported him, and bought those sometimes disappointing and pretty chintzy CDs which usually had just 10 tracks on them and a number of clinkers. George did himself no favors...letting his producer choose 25 tracks which would then be cut to 10, but not showing that much interest in the recording process. Live shows, and singing the classic hits seemed to give him more satisfaction. He admitted in his autobiography that writing about the songs and how he selected them was not worth any time or effort. And sadly enough, aside from a specific concept album in which an Elvis Costello or James Taylor contributed a key number, the Jones albums of the 90's had an awful lot of hacky tunes on them cobbled by Nashville B-listers more often than a Curly Putman or a Rodney Crowell. There were exceptions, enough to keep him signed to a label and keep fans hoping for that "great" album (the way Sinatra would sometimes turn in a fresh classic satisfying from start to finish). What turned up in stores was not enough to get him on "The Tonight Show" too often, in the Top 10 on the charts, or in a venue beyond country fairs. A realist, though bitter about the direction of country music in general, George accepted his current status and appreciated those loyal fans. Just watch him on one of those infrequent live-show DVDS...they are a joy to watch...he's enjoying himself on stage as much as the crowd is.

George wrote in his autobiography, "Through it all I kept reading articles that said I was the greatest country singer alive…I was always appreciative, but I never understood how such a supposedly good singer could be such a troubled person. My talent, though it brought me fame and fortune, never brought me peace of mind."

George did have talent...a wealth and variety of it. Though known for "weepers," George's catalog runs the gamut from typical country tunes ("The Race is On") and gospel numbers to frisky novelties ("White Lightning" has some pretty zany sound effects). He was good at honky tonk regrets ("She Thinks I Still Care" written by Dickey Lee) and Leonard Cohen was a big fan of one of George's latter-day hits, "Choices."

Like Sinatra, George Jones aged to perfection; his inflections and his baritone got better in his 40's and 50's. Just as Sinatra's Columbia sides are quite pale compared to the ones for Capitol, a lot of what George did during his early days with Starday and Mercury and Musicor isn't as deeply artistic and satisfying as his later work on Epic and MCA. "White Lightning" and "Race is On" isn't what made him a legend; "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is.

Ironically George looked very good in his later years. If you take a look at photos and concert footage from the 70's, or 80''s, you'll note the deep lines in his face…which disappeared when he was actually in his 70's. And yet he didn't seem like, as Dolly Parton once noted of Kenny Rogers, he'd spent a lot of time at "Jiffy Suck" getting his skin ironed and Botox'd. But in his last years, suffering from respiratory problems, his voice was no longer strong. And so it was that he planned unlucky 2013 as his "farewell" year, and announced his final touring schedule.

This picture here…

I have dozens and dozens of George's albums and CDs. The CDs are in many many pages…I don't have room to keep everything in jewel cases anymore. I also have an autographed picture from George's days at MCA, and a more recent card signed in gold ink. The man was pure gold.

George reflects on being 80... and sings "He Stopped Loving Her Today," March, 2013.

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