George Jones’ passing Friday following an extended illness is a little personal.
I never met Mr. Jones, and while I listened to his music for most of my life, fondness for his recordings is not the reason for my heartache.
Mr. Jones’ death takes me back to my grandfather, who was laid to rest a little more than a year ago and introduced me to the music of George, Conway Twitty, Ray Price and countless other country legends.
In so many ways, my grandfather and George Jones were polar opposites. My grandfather was a kind, hard-working, God-fearing individual who enjoyed a good time without vice and was always there for his friends, family and neighbors in need.
Most of George Jones’ life featured few of these qualities. He was an alcoholic and drug abuser, a man so absorbed in his addictions and self-destruction his trademark was missing concerts, not performing them.
They lived completely different lives. Yet, there were few true fans of George Jones’ music bigger than my grandfather.
Granddad was not the only one. Growing up in Middle Tennessee, country music’s bread basket, I rarely met anyone, saint or sinner, church deacon or barstool resident, who did not find a special place in their heart for the heartbreaking ballads and unique vocal volatility of the ‘ol Possum.
Much of their admiration focused on his voice. Never too polished, never flat and never absent emotion, George Jones’ sound serves as the measuring stick for measuring anything others want to consider “country.”
Unlike other vocalists, one cannot imagine hearing another sing like Jones, not that it is even possible.
Jones’ selection of songs offers another reason. Their lyrics, crafted by a plethora of songwriters and fellow artists, serve as standards in their own right. Yet, they only “sound right” when George sang them.
These songs, their lyrics and Jones’ delivery strike undeniable chords with his audience. Nobody I know dislikes “The Grand Tour” or “She Thinks I Still Care” or “Walk Through This World With Me.” I am careful not to ignore “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” his biggest hit and perhaps the greatest country song ever recorded.
For some reason, the music of George Jones captured the soul and heart of millions of d, Americans. His sound encouraged them to look beyond the shell of a man wrought with sin and imperfections.
I never got the feeling his fans were blind or attempting to avoid his mistakes and failures. Instead, they loved and forgave him.
They shared Faith in God. Like so many Jones’ fan loved and cared for, family and friends, they saw him as a talented “work in progress.” Eventually, they believed, he will see the path.
When I was a teenager, he made an appearance at our Walmart in Cookeville to promote his “George Jones Dog Food” (he also sold sausage at one point). Thousands of fans showed up to buy a bag, and I doubt all of them owned dogs.
I never heard my grandfather say a bad word about Jones. In his own way, he saw George as much “human” as he was.
This is hard to understand when one is younger, and when the actions of two separate lives are so easy to compare and contrast on the surface.
Eventually, George Jones sobered up. He rarely turned away from the truth, especially in his later years. The faith so many fans held for him provided the encourage necessary for Jones to confront his demons and build stronger relationships.
In the past 24 hours since his passing, the outpouring of testimonial and remembrance across the spectrums of American music and culture serve as an appropriate epilogue to Jones’ legacy.
The sadness is overwhelming. Despite a catalog of work of more than 150 albums and thousands of performances spanning all or part of 8 decades, many of us cannot imagine a life without George Jones and his music.
I doubt anybody was hanging out last night, dancing in the streets like some did after Michael Jackson’s unfortunate death a few years ago. These feelings are completely different.
Jackson also appeared to be “beyond” or “above” us, an idol fans fainted and collapsed in front of and adored in often unhealthy fashion. A talented artist so many chose to look at only skin deep, ignoring his transgressions and disturbing personal behavior.
George Jones was none of these. Despite the adulation and honors, record sales and sold out concerts, he was still seen as human, failings and all.
Now, we know he awaits the rest of us in heaven. I imagine my grandfather is among the first to welcome him.