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Remembering George Jones

Ben Fong-Torres

Ben Fong-Torres

Posted to Artist Spotlight on May 1, 2013

The phone rang. It was the news desk at the local ABC-TV affiliate.

“Who died?” I asked.

“George Jones.”

Soon, a camera operator was at my home here in San Francisco, asking questions about Jones, his impact on country music, and the state of country music today.

I must be on some kind of Sound Bites List at local radio and TV stations. Whenever a noted entertainer dies, they call. From John Lennon to Whitney Houston; from John Belushi to Dick Clark. You learn to ask, “Who died?”

But when the answer was Jones, I felt a personal sadness. I’d been a fan since probably the mid-Sixties, when country music (still called country & western) was supposed to be redneck and square. And, of course, it all sounded the same, coming off some assembly line in Nashville.

Jones’ voice cut through all such notions. Like Roy Orbison, like Ray Charles, like Elvis; like Sarah Vaughn and Patsy Cline, it was spectacularly singular. In Jones’ case, it was rooted in his life, his lifestyle, and in his wicked, wicked ways.

Here’s the sound bite KGO-TV got, after about a ten-minute interview:

“He had such a mournful, bluesy voice, but also sometimes celebrating life… To me, his voice is whiskey, with some cream on top.”

They liked that.  I did, too, because it was the truth. 

Jones, whose life and career are celebrated here in Qello’s new feature, Center Stage, broke through those Sixties musical stereotypes by singing not just country, but also the blues. He crooned. And he could rock. But, born in Saratoga, in east Texas, in 1931, he was country through and through. After kicking off his recording career in 1955 with “Why Baby Why,” he cut a couple of rockers, “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Rock It,” but hid under the name “Thumper Jones.” George, you see, was all country.

Over the decades, he got to be known as “the Rolls-Royce of country singers.” He also became an alcoholic, lost count of his marriages and divorces (although they inspired a good number of hit records and some on-stage drama, with one Tammy Wynette), and earned another nickname: “No-Show Jones.”

But when he showed, and let that baritone soar, and bend, and cry, there was none like him—including a generation or two of young singers. There was your George Jones impact.

And here it is, too, in Fifty Years of Hits. A number of other favorite voices of mine, including Shelby Lynne (doing “Why Baby Why”), Aaron Neville (on the classic “Grand Tour”), Emmylou Harris and Kris Kristofferson, are on board. Harry Connick Jr. handles the definitive Jones song, “She Thinks I Still Care.” Talk about crossing musical borders.

Best of all, “No-Show” showed up and hooked up with several of the hundreds of singers he taught so well.

Here’s to all of them, with a shot of whiskey. And cream.

For one week you can watch George Jones - Fifty Years of Hits for FREE on Center Stage for iOS, Android, and Kindle Apps.  Preview this legendary tribute below with George himself performing "I Must Have Done Something Bad."

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