Attention Must Be Paid: The Tragedy and Triumph of George Jones

Jerrick Adams

No other performer in the history of the music has so perfectly embodied, in both his work and his life, the values, struggles, and idiosyncrasies that have come to define country.

Before George Jones took the stage in Muncie, Indiana on March 16, a music video by a no-name country rocker played against the backdrop. The song, appropriately enough, was a number called “The Gospel According to Jones". It wasn’t much of a song, really -- a recitation of Jones’s most memorable tracks held together by the thin premise that they constituted chapters in the titular Jones gospel.

The crowd -- probably 3,000 strong -- went absolutely wild for it though, particularly when the Possum himself appeared toward the end of the video and added a few lines about Saints Hank and Lefty and Brother Waylon. I’ve never seen such enthusiasm from a crowd so early in the show -- remember, Jones hadn’t even taken the stage yet at this point.

When the video ended, a spotlight hit the left side of the stage and out he walked, looking encouragingly well for an octogenarian. Excitement reached a fever pitch, and after muttering a few words of welcome (warning us he was suffering from a “little laryngitis”), he and his cracker jack band launched into the honky-tonk raver “Why, Baby, Why".

And within seconds, all that excitement, so carefully cultivated by the concert’s organizers, was sucked out of the room, and for a few moments you could feel the audience sink a few inches in their seats.

George Jones -- whose voice and life are the essence of country music, who Sinatra himself called the “second best singer in America", who in my mind is one of the five great vocalists of the past hundred years -- could not sing. He struggled mightily through the first number, reaching deep for the notes, forcing them out and hearing them fall flat, then touching his throat as though a physical adjustment might make it happen. Sometimes, even this early in the show, he’d let his back-up singers take a line, collect himself and try again, only to achieve the same results.

When the song came to an end, I almost feared the reaction. Whatever his intentions, whatever his physical state, these people paid good money to see him sing, and it was obvious from the start that he wasn’t going to be able to do that to anyone’s satisfaction. But much to my surprise (and relief), the audience rose up as one and gave Jones the reception his body of work, if not this night’s performance, deserved.

He thanked the audience for their kindness and apologized profusely for the quality of his voice, only to be met with reassuring calls to go on, that he was doing great, that they loved him so much. And in that moment, I know they meant it, no matter what they might say when they left the auditorium. In that moment, to those of us in attendance, he was the world’s greatest living country singer, even if he couldn’t sing.

What followed that first song was a performance both terrible and transcendent. For roughly an hour, we watched the man give his all and fail, making a cruel joke of the testament to vital old age that played as we entered the theatre, “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair". We sat and watched Jones, who was clearly not well, who clearly should have been at home, put to rest in dramatic fashion the moniker that had justifiably followed him for much of his career -- no-show Jones.

Between songs, I found myself wondering why on earth someone of Jones’s stature would commit himself to this kind of rigor -- a 60-city farewell tour -- in such a poor state of health. Of course, the tradition in country music is that you don’t simply disappear if you’re a legend. If you’re going to retire at all, you owe it to your fans to bid them a proper adieu and to give them a chance to say good-bye, as well. But this was beyond the pale. I mean, who would even want to see George Jones reduced to this?

Maybe it’s the money, I thought -- perhaps old George is hard up. After all, the show was preceded by a sales pitch, as the stage manager made some corny jokes and then sent scurrying down the aisles half a dozen roadies with CDs, like peanut guys at a ballgame. And then, at the show’s half-way mark, back-up singer Brittany Allyn tried to sell us all on VIP tickets to the final, star-studded Jones show in Nashville in November (an absurd explosion of another great country tradition -- the guitar pull -- only this time, Jones will be joined by something like two dozen stars of varying luster).

I wouldn’t begrudge him that, mind you. If anyone’s earned an old-fashioned cash grab, it’s George Jones. I don’t think that’s what was going on, though -- there’s better ways to make money in this day and age, and a traditional 60-city tour is not foremost among them.

All night, I searched for an explanation -- how do you account for the audience, the performance, the man, the music, and the ways in which they came together and didn’t in that auditorium? It wasn’t until days later that I began to hit upon a viable answer.

I alluded to Jones earlier as being the essence of country music. To do so has become cliché, but the honorific itself is a meaningful one. No other performer in the history of the music has so perfectly embodied, in both his work and his life, the values, struggles, and idiosyncrasies that have come to define country. That voice, with its impossible highs and its gut-wrenching lows, its flexibility and its rigidness, encompasses all that came before it and pushes the genre forward, all the while remaining utterly unique. Tracks like “The Window Up Above", “The Grand Tour", and “He Stopped Loving Her Today", are the equal of any record in any genre. He’s quite simply one of the great musical talents of the modern era.

And yet, he’s been an utterly careless artist. His discography is all but inscrutable, and he hasn’t exercised his stature to make better sense of it yet. More importantly, he was an utterly careless human being, ravaging his body and mind with booze and coke, leaving in his wake wives, children, and friends. Even when he got it together, his public approach to his debauched past was to trivialize and market it. Hardly commendable behavior from a decent human being, much less a great artist.

But on that Saturday night, something like a public reckoning was taking place. Whether he was conscious of it, I don’t know and I don’t care. The prevailing themes of his recorded work -- heartbreak and loss -- were transformed, in the context of this concert, into unflinching reflections on his past, his dissipation, and death itself. In his long prime, the power of his voice elevated even the saddest song to ecstatic heights. Now, his withered rasp brought the songs and the story back down to earth, revealing without adornment the desperate pain that has always simmered below their surfaces. In failing so miserably to do justice to his own work, Jones nevertheless revealed heretofore-unexplored depths in the music. Amazingly, the artist became his art.

I only came upon this realization later, and its abstraction does nothing to diminish the tragedy inherent in the performance as I experienced it in the moment. In the aftermath of the concert, I couldn’t be comforted by such notions. I could only see a great man felled by time and his own carelessness. I suspect many others that night felt the same thing, as will many others when they see him on one of the remaining dates of this tour.

Walking back to my car, I could think only of another great American failure, Willy Loman, about whom it was written:

“I don't say he's a great man. … He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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