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