George Jones was a great singer for two reasons: he had a great voice, and he knew how to dramatize an idea. But because genre distinctions matter to consumers and marketers, and are therefore bound up with identity categories, George Jones is known primarily as a great country singer. Kris Kristofferson, who knows something about country music, observed that George Jones was the greatest country singer since Hank Williams, perhaps the most accurate assessment of George Jones' stature. Because Hank Williams died so young and so many years ago, it is easy to overlook the fact that George Jones was, almost to the day, just eight years younger than Hank Williams. Born in Texas in 1931, after the end of Prohibition and at the beginning of the Texas oil boom, George Jones grew up knowing well those taverns at the outskirts of large towns where itinerant Southern white laborers, farmers, and truck drivers assembled to drink beer and listen to music, otherwise known as honky tonks. Indeed, as Joli Jensen observes, the honky tonk "figured in the careers of virtually every major country music star of the '50s and '60s" (The Nashville Sound, 23). Of those performers strongly associated with honky-tonk music, among them Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Snow, and Ray Price, George Jones was the last surviving member.
The honky tonk bar is, of course, one of the many mythic sites of origin for country music, along with the front porch, the country barn dance, and the hills of home (the recording studio is often elided in the list of such origins). Hence honky-tonk is an urban music, the symbol of which is wet asphalt and the neon sign. In "Honky Tonk Blues," Hank Williams sings:
Well, I stopped into every place in town
This city life has really got me down
I got the honky tonk blues
Hey, the honky tonk blues
Lyrics such as these lead Joli Jensen to argue that the structuring absence of honky-tonk music is "the mythological hills of home," "the absence of the hills and hollers," the loss of Eden. The honky-tonk music genre "is about living in a city, cut off from the solace of home" (The Nashville Sound, 24). Hence, although considered "country music," honky-tonk music has nothing to with the hills, porches, and barns of home, but rather is about the risks and temptations of urban night life: drinking, cheating, and getting hurt (either physically or emotionally). The steel guitar became essential to honky tonk music as a sonic equivalent to boozy self-pity (memories) and self-indulgence (another drink).
George Jones became George Jones the great country singer only after his voice matured into a mellow baritone, perfectly suited to the world-weary experience of the persona he adopted to convey the anguish of his best songs. For the best songs by George Jones are about the traumatic loss of home, symbolically about the loss of Eden. We live in a curious age, in which excess of whatever kind (for example, drugs, alcohol, spending money) is considered a form of authenticity. Strangely, during his years of drug use and heavy drinking, Jones himself (as opposed to the person who earned his living as a singer) was lost and inauthentic. Despite his legendary drinking and drug-taking, George Jones always seemed most comfortable not in the big concert halls, but in small venues in the South; he never seemed comfortable in "the big city." (Remember that one of the better duets he recorded with his one time wife Tammy Wynette was, "(We're Not) The Jet Set," and I think Jones, at least, meant it.) The one time I saw George Jones in concert, in 1991 and by which time his past exploits had become installed as part of his legend ("No Show Jones"), it was in a relatively small theater in Branson, Missouri, and he was in fine form. His was one of the finest concerts I've ever attended, not only because of his exuberant, enthusiastic performance (Becky and I were fortunate enough to be in the front row) and great band, but because he seemed perfectly relaxed, comfortable, "at home." Certain of his songs employed standard honky-tonk themes, such "Tennessee Whiskey," in which the special virtues of his woman are likened to the pleasures of drinking good whiskey. Better songs, though, are "The Window Up Above" (written by Jones), "A Picture of Me (Without You)," and "The Grand Tour," precisely because of his heartfelt performance of what it means to lose Eden. He returned to this theme in one of his last great recordings, "Where the Tall Grass Grows" (on the album, And Along Came Jones, recorded in 1991 after leaving Epic and also producer Billy Sherrill, with whom he recorded many of his best-known songs). If you can't appreciate songs like these, you'll never understand the special power of George Jones, and why he was so widely admired. I really can't deny the fact that "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is quintessential George Jones, widely touted as "the greatest country song of all time" (Jones, however, after having finished recording the song, allegedly referred to it as a "morbid son of a bitch"). "Best of" lists, are, of course, an old Victorian parlor game, a pleasant form of diversion, a way to pass the time. However, assuming for the sake of argument that "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is indeed "the greatest country song of all time," it holds that distinction not because of the song, but because of the singer. Had a singer of lesser talent recorded it, it would indeed have remained only a morbid son of a bitch.