George Jones

Rialto Square Theatre, February 25

George Jones is a freak, and I mean that only in the most complimentary sense of the term. It’s been said many times that he’s perhaps the greatest pure country singer who’s ever lived. Such arguments of course are all apples and oranges once you start talking country gods Jimmie, Hank, and Lefty. But ever since he stepped from the shadows of his spiritual mentors a long time ago, he’s been his own singular piece of fruit.

His voice has been described as keening, penetrating, stunning. But really, trying to capture it in words is like trying to describe the light of a setting sun. The gradations are so subtle yet swift, so ever-shifting and multidimensional, they can leave you breathless. His is a voice that even the most butt-kissing panegyric can’t overhype.

It had been a while since I’d seen Jones perform live, and that last time had genuinely exceeded all expectations. It was almost two years ago, back at the teeth-achingly lovely Chicago Theatre, before Donny Osmond had installed himself there in what seemed like the death-grip run of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The bill that night had been an extraordinary one–Vern Gosdin, Conway Twitty, and George Jones, elder country statesmen all.

Sadly, it was also to be the last time Twitty would perform in Chicago; less than eight weeks after that show, Twitty, who was only 59, collapsed on his tour bus in Missouri, and after a blood vessel ruptured in his stomach died from surgical complications. That night at the Chicago Theatre remains a potent reminder of the price one pays for being an aging legend. As Frank Sinatra once brooded aloud–in a moment of weary, mortal resignation following the deaths of longtime cronies Sammy Davis Jr. and Jilly Rizzo–after a certain point you get the feeling the crowds come to the show because they believe it just might be the last.

George Jones’s fans should be excused for sometimes thinking that way; at 63 he’s only recently recovered from serious heart surgery yet chose to hit the road again in the dead of winter. But it’s hardly just such recent events that give one pause. Jones’s notorious past is common knowledge; he even sings about his reputation for going AWOL at concerts in the novelty song “No Show Jones.” Booze, drugs, busted relationships–it’s a litany of personal themes that’s been attached to him throughout his 40-plus-year career, but one that has been left largely unexplored. Depending on who’s telling the Jones story it can almost sound cute or comical. But in a recent edition of the Journal of Country Music, the sterling writer Nick Tosches limned the often horrifying arc of Jones’s life. It’s a story about just how dark dark can get. While Tosches thoroughly covered the artistic triumphs of Jones’s career, he also paid attention to his difficulties. These are just a few: a brutish, alcoholic father who’d stagger home drunk in the middle of the night and roust the young George from bed, violently commanding him to sing; Jones’s self-flagellating descent into his own alcoholism; repeated attempts at marriage and fatherhood, which for the most part nose-dived into abject failure; mental instability and addiction that landed him briefly in a rubber room in the early 70s; bankruptcy, physical ruin, and homelessness in the late 70s; the unbelievable climb out of career death on the strength of one song, the timeless 1980 hit “He Stopped Loving Her Today”; more straitjackets, uncontrollable drinking, and run-ins with the law; an eventual sobriety that seems to be as painful as active alcoholism; and finally, the overwhelming feeling that this master of country soul, this creator and definer of a quintessential honky-tonk heartache that few if any will ever rival, remains such an inarticulate, vacant person offstage that he often resembles little more than a functional brain stem.

Which of these stories stuck most I can’t say, but all of them haunted me for weeks. Reading the Tosches piece was like waking up in a pool of someone else’s night sweat–clammy, sodden, ghastly. Sure, you could roll out of it and take a shower, be thankful that in the end that particular swamp wasn’t really yours to lie in. But coming so close to that sort of detailed personal information made you privy to things you’d never really wash off, and you’d certainly never view the privately sweating man the same way again, no matter how dry or cute or comic his public face.

“Oh, bless your hearts!” Jones cried like a parrot at the Rialto a few weeks back, just like he had at the Chicago Theatre, for what can safely be said to have been the millionth time in his career. Superficially there was little difference between the shows, from the rote patter that introduced his songs to his predictable set list (a number of hits, including “Window Up Above,” “The Grand Tour,” “White Lightning,” and “She Thinks I Still Care” were given the medley treatment) to his proclamations about various members of his road-toughened, honky-tonk band, the Jones Boys (“He sounds just like Merle Haggard!” Jones had shouted about bassist and band sergeant Ron Gaddis at the Chicago Theatre; at the Rialto Jones updated the reference to the more contemporary “He sounds just like Alan Jackson!”). And new additions the Possumettes, two young female vocalists who sang harmony and later took solo turns while Jones schlepped around near the drums, could hardly be viewed as innovation.

But for all the surface predictability he wasn’t predictable at all. Hearing him sing live again floored me, something I really hadn’t expected to happen. It was that same old feeling, which is not to say it was same-old same-old. From the dopey novelty “High-Tech Redneck” (“He’s a high-tech redneck / Mayberry meets Star Trek”) to the haunting “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” Jones’s voice, which easily shifts from tenor to baritone, is as good today as it ever was, weirdly strong and unravaged by past excesses.

While it’s true that the mere sight of Jones onstage can turn me sloppy, his voice evokes something hard to pin and even harder to express. It’s kind of like the explosion of feeling that comes with an unexpected slap in the face from a loved one. It sends you both reeling into space and reeling inward, not so much from the physical impact but from the primitive emotional places it takes you, places so buried and hidden maybe you didn’t even know they were there.

That voice soared up and out, boomed down, clenched so fast and hard in such sharp and wrenching ways I knew I’d never really catch up with it, and I’d never really catch it on the page no matter how hard I tried. I knew that no matter how tight and clean and crisp the prose, in comparison to the astringent truths of that voice it would all sound dull. Listening to this freak, this time with all that creepy-scary Tosches information plugged into my brain, I realized George Jones makes me react in ways I still can’t predict. I realized it was me that was sweating.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Basil Fairbanks Studio.