Each week in God and Country Music, Nick Rynerson gives country music a chance and examines the world of Americana, folk, alt-country, and popular country music.
The passing of George Jones this past week brought about a storm of nostalgic tribute from NPR and The New York Times and even Russell Moore. And at this point, there isn’t much that can be said that hasn’t been. Jones (or “The Possum”) was one of the most influential musicians in 20th century American Country. His distinct style was the bedrock of much popular Nashville Country; he was as complex as Hank Williams and as crisp as The Fabulous Charlie Rich. But The Possum was something altogether different. The New York Times Jon Parales describes his songs as:
“All the pleasures of a down-home Saturday night couldn’t free him from private pain. His up-tempo songs had undercurrents of solitude, and the ballads that became his specialty were suffused with stoic desolation.”
It was this down-home complexity that earned Jones 14 number-one hits and mentioned in the conversation along with Hank, Roy Acuff, and Johnny Cash as the greatest country singer of all time.
But it wasn’t Jones’s music that got his name in the papers the most—it was his crazy drunken antics, broken marriages, and a famous incident with a riding lawnmower.
George Jones partied hard. Real hard. It’s a miracle that Jones didn’t end up dead on the side of the highway like a possum. But to be fair, that is kind of what was expected in Nashville. Self-destruction and Country Music have gone hand in hand since Charlie Poole drank himself to death in 1931. The hard-living, early-dying, Rock ‘n Roll lifestyle was alive and well in Nashville way before Keith Richards was shooting up heroin before gigs.
But Nashville, the city built by music, became what it is for a very different reason. The Grand Ole Opry was built on “family values.” As a matter of fact, George Hay, the founder of The Grand Ole Opry show (that turned Nashville into Country’s Mecca), found success because of his “family friendly” vision. At the time (the mid-1920s–1950s), that’s what was selling. So what happened, naturally, was a moral, religious even, dichotomy hidden by three-piece suits and steel guitars. This is where George Jones, the young Texas boy with a voice of gold, found himself caught up “walking the line,” if you will. Following in the likes of Williams and Poole, George Jones looked like he was a goner.
Then there was a change. NPR’s tribute to Jones says it well:
“In his final decades something unexpected happened: call it surrender. Jones more or less put his addictions aside, and his marriage to his fourth wife, Nancy Sepulvedo, was his longest and most nurturing. He’d gone from being a pariah in Nashville to a mascot who got respect — a bobble head doll that might punch out your lights.”
By the late eighties, Jones’s radio popularity had waned and Country music was changing. But so was Jones. He gave up drinking, cocaine, and presumably lawnmowers to settle down with his wife and make music. It was as if he lived the Country music life and finding it unfulfilling and murderous, he bowed out.
I’d like to think that he remembered the Gospel songs that he recorded in 1973 and found Jesus like Johnny Cash. I don’t know for certain, but I’d like to think God used the music that marked him since he first heard Roy Acuff as a boy. Regardless, from the 1980s on, his life and music were marked by grace. Often making light of his past debauchery and even reconciling with his ex-wife to record a few duets, it seemed that The Possum had made peace. One of his last full-length albums, 2003’s The Gospel Collection, is a beautiful set of songs that ring with a high lonesome spiritual nostalgia. And like George Jones sings on his 2003 version of the old Gospel cover, he’s now in the land “where he’ll never grow old.”
And if you don’t know George Jones, start here: