Tradition can turn icons like George Jones into the mythic Atlas, asking them to carry history on their shoulders while requiring them to presently turn the world. One wrong spin and an icon becomes bubblegum, self-parody, or a museum piece. If George Jones had chosen a venue where slot machines and all-you-can eat salad bars serenade the crowd pre-concert, self-parody or museumhood would be acceptable, even expected. But Jones has foregone the casino circuit and brought traditional country back to the big room, testing his own viability in an age of glossy crossover country that promotes beach balls and bikini badonkadonk as much as square-dancing and low-sung ballads.
I arrive at the RiverCenter about forty minutes before the show to stretch my legs on the banks of the Mississippi. In a comic twist, Jones is competing with a ballet tonight on the RiverCenter’s other stage. A mix of John Deere hats and flannel shirts stroll amongst tuxedoed husbands and sons sneaking a smoke during intermission. With just a few minutes to spare, I take my seat in the first balcony. A DJ from the local Classic Country station grabs the stage mic and gives a “How y’all doin’ tonight?” to decent but not overwhelming applause. “We’ll have some George Jones for you later, but first we’ve got some fifty dollar gas cards to give away,” the DJ shouts to a crowd that cheers equally for gas cards and George Jones.
After a number of gas cards and autographed John Deere caps are given away, Travis Matte makes his way to the stage with an accordion and washboard player in tow. They are obviously local. Their greeting is even more local. Matte shouts into the mic “Y’all ready for some coon ass music” and billows his accordian into the familiar two-step of traditional zydeco. The crowd—aesthetically rural, even if from the city—clap their approval. Matte and company take no risks during their set. Although their sound is laden with heavier guitar tones than most zydeco, the “coon-ass” references (meaning “hick” and nothing racial, if you’re from out of town) and calls for a “zydeco party” reverberate across the room to the point of sycophancy. The dance hall atmosphere, however, cannot be reconstructed. The swing and swagger of packed wooden dance floors requires the intimacy of hands gripping hips and a lack of dance space, not the politeness and order of a Ticketmaster seating chart. The set ends somewhere between a bang and a whimper, but certainly a far cry from a zydeco party.
After Matte’s set, a discussion breaks out across several rows of my section. Is Tammy Wynette still alive? Answers range from “No, she died in the late ‘80s,” to “Yes, but she can’t sing anymore,” to “I saw her last week on the Grand Ole Opry”. “That could have been a rerun,” I point out to everyone, but before we can solve the Wynette question, the lights dim and Jason Byrd takes the stage for an acoustic set.
Byrd, on tour with Jones for the last 18 months, is the young generation of classic country. Broad-shouldered, chiseled, and black-hatted, he sings about love and trucks and hitting the bottle. He looks and sometimes sounds like the “new country” which Jones will later take pot shots at several times during his set. Byrd’s tunes include ridicule of the redneck life: “You ain’t right, you see a dead deer, pull over, takes it pulse, take it home for dinner, You ain’t right”. But his tunes traverse that fine line between parody and identity that country often walks, as when his bass-y voice booms a list of heroes and becomes a ballad’s refrain: “Jesus, Dale Earnhardt, and Bosephus,” he repeats, more earnest than light-hearted. If there is a way to sort out parody of the country life from earnestness, it is found in the human voice, not the lyrics. Byrd, his voice strong and clear, reminds one of a young George Jones. If Byrd’s art is not Sugarland’s rush of serotonin, or if Byrd’s concert lacks Kenny Chesney’s teen beach party atmosphere, Byrd hasn’t noticed, and his voice proves him a worthwhile addition to the legacy of country crooners such as Clint Black and Alan Jackson.
George Jones’ identically outfitted six-piece band begin warming up the crowd a few minutes later. The band is seasoned and virtuosic. Everyone has gray hair and a million-road miles under them. They trade solos for the opening number until things slow to allow the lone female back-up singer to step up for a rendition of “I Will Always Love You” faithful to Dolly Parton, not Whitney Houston. About a dozen couples move to the space before the stage and I watch women’s heads disappear and reappear as they slow dance beneath their man’s cowboy hat.
Jones enters to a star’s welcome and starts at the beginning, singing his 1955 hit “Why Baby Why” with the pedal steel echoing the question. He quickly runs through “The Race Is On”, “Bartender Blues”, and “Choices”. Jones’ voice, once the defining voice of his generation, is, at age 77, a little weak and short on lung power. But as he and the band warm up over these opening numbers, Jones’ voice misses less, and his big-as-the-sun-yet-sad-and-lonely vibrato finds its mark more often.
Yet it is not only witnessing the near glory of Jones’ once glorious voice that makes the show attractive. Jones has a legacy of his own as well. Dubbed “No Show” Jones because of show time delinquency due to drugs and drink, a song like “Choices”, perhaps lyrically banal, delivers because of Jones’ lived experience. You have to dub Jones preacher, not entertainer, for many of the evening’s songs to carry weight. Only then can simple country wisdom such as “I’ve had choices” become testimony, not platitude. The best example of this comes when Jones invites Jason Byrd to sing Merle Haggard’s half of the classic duet “Yesterday’s Wine.” While Byrd sings the song nicely, the clowning and commiseration of the original Haggard and Jones performance is nowhere to be found or felt. The song falters, becoming an awkwardly staged country duet about drinkin’. Sitting close enough to the stage to see Jones’ body language, I get the feeling that Jones knows this, too, and finds it not funny, but regrettable, that time has slipped away. And if time has not yet taken Haggard or Jones, it has taken performers of this cast whose music poured from a different forge than the coming generations of performers. Or on a simpler plane, one feels the absence present in any artist who has outlived almost all of their equally legendary friends.
Jones drags barbs over newer crossover country several times, sometimes as a prelude to his own favorite crossover genre, gospel, as when he and the band play a version of “Me and Jesus, We Got A Long Way To Go” straight from a Southern revival time capsule. Sometimes the barbs are dragged as a joke, as when Jones half jokes, half admonishes new country for giving up on “good ol’ fashioned drinkin’ and cheatin’ songs. Lord knows I’d be without a job.”
Regardless of what the crowd listens to when not at a George Jones concert, they all seem ready to burn their Shania Twain and Uncle Kracker discs in the name of Jones at the moment. Every song starts with a brief standing ovation as homage to Jones’ catalogue of hits. Between songs, a woman fifty years his junior runs from the side of the stage and plants a solid kiss firmly on Jones’ lips, leaving him visibly flustered and unable to recapture his fluid between-song pitter-patter. Before closing the set with, “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair”, Jones and his back-up singer give a comfortable, un-awkward performance of “Golden Ring”, a song made famous by Jones and ex-wife Tammy Wynette. Unlike other moments of the evening that were self-consciously “traditional”, Jones and partner seem unbothered by the changing world during their duet, perhaps because the ironic but realistic story of a wedding ring purchased and repurchased from a pawn shop window by doomed lovers is a truism that never fades, unlike the generation of George Jones.