I’ve always said
I was gonna leave you …
When all the land is wet …
—“I’m Not Ready Yet”
And remarkably, ridiculously, George Jones recalls Chaucer, whose April showers pierced the March drought, and Eliot, for whom April was the cruelest month.
I know, Jones didn’t write that one (Tom T. Hall did). For that matter, he didn’t write a great many of the songs that made him famous. That’s beside the point, because poetry has always been about sound, about voice, and Jones had a voice as strong as Chaucer’s or Eliot’s.
The drama evident in Jones’s delivery of just those first two lines—their elegant construction aside—is staggering. The first five words are sung with minimal accompaniment, with a subtle but significant pause between “said” and “that” which at first, given the way the voice rises, suggests something akin to victory—hard-won to be sure, but victory nonetheless. With the second pause, after “someday”, the first critical moment occurs, and to crib some Eliot, we wonder whether the singer will have the strength to the force the moment to its crisis and make good on the promise of triumph he’s so far suggested.
He rushes the remainder of the line, lingering momentarily, ruefully, on “leave you”. And we’re met with the tragedy, as it becomes clear that he hasn’t left and that he won’t, later protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. In the second line, the singer’s wistful, longing evocation of spring’s rebirth (popular among poets) underscores his own failure to achieve a similar renewal.
And so we have in the course of two lines—18 words, 20 seconds—the arc of a fully formed and resonant tragedy, rich with allusion, simple in its technique, and strikingly affecting. No small feat, and if you care about art, it demands your attention.
* * *
George Jones died this morning at the age of 81. I can’t say I’m surprised, as he’d clearly been struggling for some time. Whether it was the decades of hard living or just plain old age that finally got him, I don’t know and I don’t care. What matters is the music: records like “I’m Not Ready Yet” or “The Grand Tour” or “She Thinks I Still Care” ... take your pick; he had more masterworks than you can shake a stick at.
As the tributes roll in over the next few days, he’ll no doubt be called the greatest singer in the history of country music. That’s all well and good, but it’s faint praise. Jones wasn’t just a great country singer. He was, rather, one of the premiere American musical talents of the past century. By any reasonable aesthetic criteria, he ranks alongside Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, or Aretha Franklin.
There’s nothing you can say about him that one of his own records couldn’t say better, and now’s as good a time as any to acquaint or reacquaint yourself with his artistry. I know that’s what I’ll be doing for the next several days, wondering, like Jones himself wondered nearly 20 years ago, who’s going to fill his shoes? Who possibly could?
She Thinks I Still Care
Someday My Day Will Come
The King Is Gone (And So Are You)
The Grand Tour
He Stopped Loving Her Today