George Jones is dead. Those words have been a long time coming. The country singer himself titled his 1996 autobiography I LIVED TO TELL IT ALL. In his book--which is excellent, by the way--Jones expresses surprise that he managed to hang on long after people had given him up for dead. If he'd died in a blaze of cocaine and booze in 1974 exactly no one would have been surprised.
But Jones didn't perish, he prospered. In the seventies, moreover, he solidified his standing as perhaps the greatest of all country singers. Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn were arguably greater artists, and Merle Haggard probably had more sheer talent than anyone else.
But Jones was the purest soul singer. Maybe because he lacked all theory and pretension toward art he was free to focus on his obsessions: heartache and drinking . Oh, he did the occasional hymn ("Cup Of Loneliness") or message song ("Whose Gonna Fill Their Shoes?"), but he was always his truest self singing about the disappointments of love and the empty solace of alcohol.
He was charting hits in the fifties, was already a legend by the sixties, but in the seventies--in the midst of personal turmoil brought on by his drug addiction and his tortured marriage to and divorce from Tammy Wynette--he created his finest work. It was as if the man had been worn down to one hot nerve--"A Good Year For The Roses," "We Can Make It," "A Day In The Life Of A Fool," "A Picture Of Me (Without You)," "The Grand Tour," "These Days I Barely Get By," "Memories Of Us"--the music flowed out of him.
Like most great artists, he needed a lot of help. He rarely wrote songs--indeed, in his autobiography he says he rarely ever even choose the songs he recorded. This put him at the mercy of half-assed ideas (see his career nadir "High-Tech Redneck" or, better still, don't), but working with producer Billy Sherrill he achieved a kind of perfection. This partnership reached its high point in the early eighties. "He Stopped Loving Her Today" was released in 1980 and for years afterwards was considered Jones's best song (and, some would argue, country music's finest single). It's a fine song, and Jones is in beautiful form on it--though one must admit that the production seems a little self-conciously grandiose. For my money, Jones actually nailed his best moment in front of the microphone a year later with "If Drinking Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)." There's no distance here between the singer and the lyrics, which was always the case when Jones was at his best. He doesn't belt it out, he crawls inside of it. The story of a drunk man who's driven himself home from the bars at "four in the mornin'" it builds to perhaps the keystone lyric for the entire Jones canon:
If drinking don't kill me
her memory will
I can't hold out much longer
the way that I feel
There was always humor in Jones ("With the blood from my body/I could start my own still") because no matter how low he sunk he always seemed to regard his pain as something absurd. And I'm not talking about irony here, the kind you might find in Haggard or Roger Miller. Jones was too literal to ever give an ironic wink. No, it was more fatalistic than that. In "If Drinking Don't Kill Me" the drunk man stumbling into his home is bitterly amused at the absurdity of being left alone. The built-in brutality of existence, after all, is that all life ends in death. And this is mirrored in the way that love transmogrifies into pain in one way or another.
The ultimate irony, of course, is that by using his art to turn that pain into music, Jones ended up giving comfort to the rest of us. He helped us through breakups and disappointments and betrayals of one kind or another because he understood that the meaning of life is loss.
The king is dead. Long live the king.