Listen/Download – George Jones – She Thinks I Still Care Listen/Download – George Jones – Root Beer
I was sitting at my desk on Friday morning, digimatizing some 45s and picking songs out for Funky16Corners when what should pop up in my Facebook feed but the news that the mighty George Jones had passed away at the age of 81.
There have been a few posts here at Iron Leg over the years that hinted at my love for country music of a certain vintage, but I’ve never really gone into it in any depth.
Like many rock’n’rollers in my age group, I backed my way into country music, mostly via covers of classic songs by groups like the Grateful Dead and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
I found my way into country through ‘country rock’, which is really a way of saying that the real stuff was too potent to hit right away so I had to have it diluted first.
Country music, much like disco, is a sound that in my early years I was always aware of but separated from culturally.
Sure, I’d watch Hee Haw on Saturday mornings as a kid, and knew all the really big names, like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, George Jones and Buck Owens through their crossover into the general pop culture zeitgeist, but had almost no exposure to their music.
It was only in the 80s, when I started to investigate the twangier end of the spectrum, especially Gram Parsons, that I found myself a gateway into the sound.
Parsons, on his own and with the Flying Burrito Brothers introduced me to singers like Jones, Haggard and Owens in a way that I might never have discovered if left to my own devices.
Because they took the time to pass it through a late-60s, ‘California hippie’ strainer, Parsons (who referred to his sound as ‘Cosmic American Music’), and folks like the guys in the Buffalo Springfield/Poco axis, as well as early adapters like Gene Clark, Mike Nesmith and Rick Nelson, made it much easier for someone like me to find my way, first to the Bakersfield sound, then on to guys like George Jones.
Someone – I can’t remember exactly who, but the sentiment is general enough that it could have been any number of people – said that country music exists in some ways as a kind of “white man’s soul music”.
The racial aspect of that is kind of simplistic, and I’d go as far as to suggest that it ought to be amended to say “another kind of soul music”.
If you’ve spent as much time listening to music as I have, especially soul music, and then drill down into the soul of the deep south, you begin to realize that the borders that were drawn in our minds over the years, especially in regard to the constructs of race and music, and the way they effect each other, are often much more porous and flexible than we ever imagined.
One need only listen to singers like James Carr, Arthur Alexander and Joe South* to realize that country, and soul are much broader categories than most people think.
Though he would never fit the accepted mold of “soul singer”, George Jones was a singer with a remarkable amount of soul.
The first time I really “heard” George Jones it took me a while to reconcile the crystal clear, powerful voice with the public image of a tortured soul wrestling with alcohol and all the troubles it brought with it.
Though there are many singers whose voices you could imagine in any number of contexts, George Jones pipes seemed purpose-built for country. High and clear, and fitting perfectly in close harmonies that sounded like they came down from the hills, his singing was country music.
Jones always struck me as something of a raw nerve. One need only look at clips of him performing live and take a close look at his eyes to see what I mean. No matter what kind of song he was singing – and he was famous for tales of heartbreak – Jones always seemed to me to be peering warily from behind a wall of some kind. Having devoted so much of his resources to that incredible voice, which carried with it so much emotion, the look in his eyes betrayed a soul in distress.
When you consider a life so filled with upheaval, much of it brought on by his own behavior, there was a temptation over the years to look at Jones and think ‘Man, he some kind of wild good ole boy!’, chuckling at the image of Possum defiantly riding into town on his lawn mower when his car keys had been confiscated.
But there was nothing funny about it, and you could see that despite an occasional wry tip of the hat in the direction of that particular anecdote, Jones didn’t think it was either.
Fortunately for Jones, his family and those of us that love his music, he managed to pull it all back together and live to a ripe old age no one could have imagined when he was at his worst.
The two tracks I bring you today represent two sides of Jones.
‘She Thinks I Still Care’ was a #1 Country hit for Jones in 1962. It remains today, more than 50 years later one of the truly great records in the genre. It has been covered many times – the first time I heard it was via Leon Russell’s cover on his 1973 ‘Hank Wilson’s Back’ LP – and is one of the truly great statements of heartbreak.
Listen to Jones’s version and marvel at what a remarkable singer he was. He lays down the first line of the song in a rich, almost conventional baritone, but by the time he reaches the end of the second line, his voice takes on another character entirely, stretching out and almost taking on the reedy sound of a fiddle (an effect that he repeats on the second line of every verse).
If you get a chance, check out Little Willie John’s recording of the song, which is epic in its own way.
The second tune is a much more lighthearted number, touching on Jones’s rockabilly tendencies.
One of his biggest hits was 1959’s ‘White Lightning’, written by JP Richardson (the Big Bopper) and as close to rockabilly as any mainstream country record ever came.
‘Root Beer’, which appeared on the same 1962 LP as ‘She Thinks I Still Care’, ‘The New Favorites of George Jones’ is in many ways a rewrite of ‘White Lightning’, this time on the carbonated, non-alcoholic side of the street. Though the production is Countrypolitan-heavy, that rockabilly vibe is still there, and it’s funny too, so there’s that.
Jones went on to be one of the biggest stars of country music (alone and in duets with his third wife – of four – Tammy Wynette).
If you’re not familiar with Jones, and wish to investigate further, there are tons of compilations out there of his early stuff (Starday, Mercury, United Artists) that can be picked up on CD or in iTunes.
I hope you dig the sounds, and I’ll see you all next week.
*And you could easily add names like Solomon Burke, Otis Redding, Tony Joe White and OV Wright to that list