George Jones has been remembered over the past week as a balladeer and song interpreter par excellence — a vocalist whose deceptive ease brought out the drama, tension and emotional devastation lesser singers strain to build. Yet as with the late Johnny Cash, a more playful, harder to assess figure emerges from the staggering number of records Jones cut over his career.
When Jones' first hit record, the incessant honky-tonk stomper "Why Baby Why," entered the Billboard charts in the fall of 1955, country music was on the edge of a tectonic shift. The twin beasts of rockabilly and rock 'n' roll were already stalking the pop music landscape, but no one had any idea of the force that would be released in the early months of 1956. The young Possum was just getting a handle on his own style when the twin megatonnage of Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" and Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" dropped. Country music would never be the same, and honky-tonkers of all stripes and varieties scrambled to establish hepcat credentials.
For the youngest son of Clara Patterson Jones, that meant a hurry-up session in the spring of 1956 to cut two of the wildest examples of primal-scream rockabilly ever captured, "Rock It" and "How Come It." It was released under the thinly veiled alter ego of "Thumper" Jones, and he later looked upon this double blast of unhinged hillbilly rock as an embarrassment — one of the few times he performed in a manner that didn't come naturally. Asked about the record in 1993, Jones told journalist Nick Tosches, "Hell, when you're starvin' to death, you'll try anything."
But even though Jones returned to the honky-tonks and soon stumbled upon the apocalyptic tearjerkers that made him a legend, he still had rockin' in him. Uptempo honky-tonk numbers continued to be a staple of his repertoire, and in September 1958 he entered the Owen Bradley Studio on 16th Avenue South to record "White Lightning," his first No. 1 hit.
In the hands of any other singer, this thumpin' tale of bootleggers and "revenooers" would have been just another latecomer to the already fading rockabilly field. But in The Possum's mitts, the song expressed a new paradigm for uptempo honky-tonk — rural swagger, attitude and subject matter yoked to rock's loping, insistent beat. It was Jones meeting rockabilly on his own terms, making him one of the first to solve the seemingly unsolvable equation of (honky-tonk ⁄ rockabilly) + X = stone country. And as in many of his finest moments, he accomplished this astonishing bit of hillbilly calculus without any forethought or self-awareness — just by singing what came naturally.
In the next few years, he recorded more classics of this crossbreed: "Just Little Boy Blue," "Who Shot Sam" and "The Race Is On." These records never garnered the same respect as his snapshots of romantic devastation, such as "Accidentally on Purpose" or "She Thinks I Still Care." But they did point the way to a new form of honky-tonk music that rose to prominence in the 1960s, as artists like Buck Owens, Del Reeves and Johnny Paycheck found their own ways to reconcile the honky-tonk/rock 'n' roll formula.
Between 1962 and 1971, Jones hit the most prolific period of his recording career. With his manager, Pappy Daily, cranking the musical huckster mill, Jones recorded more than 450 songs in 10 years. Through the sheer volume of material, Jones explored many different musical directions, bringing the "Jones Touch" to each one. But even as he nursed his gift for weepers, he remained faithful to rockin' country novelty songs like "Love Bug" and "I'm a People." These ditties did not win accolades from country music literati, yet his crazed auctioneer-on-speed delivery on the latter is arguably riskier than some of his best-known hits.
When Jones signed with Epic Records in 1971, producer Billy Sherrill focused on Jones' magisterial handling of heartbreak ballads, yielding massive hits like "The Grand Tour" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today" — songs that boiled Ingmar Bergman's four-and-a-half-hour Scenes From a Marriage to three minutes of harrowing desolation. But alongside Sherrill's lushly produced epics of emotional Armageddon, the rockin' country persisted, often buried as seemingly tossed-off album cuts just waiting to be unearthed by loyal Jones fans. Occasionally these good-humored throwaways would even make their way onto the charts via hits like "Old King Kong" or "The King Is Gone (So Are You)," a deranged favorite that finds the singer in three-way commiseration with an Elvis-shaped Jim Beam decanter and Fred Flintstone's likeness on a jellybean jar.
Such tunes remained an important part of Jones' repertoire to the very end. And in their way, the novelty songs and country-fried rockers are as important to his legacy as the classics of weightier emotional gravitas. For if few performers knew the pits of despair as well as George Jones, fewer still warmed the path with so much light.
"Cogito ergo sum"
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