Music
7:29 pm
Fri April 26, 2013

George Jones: The Voice Of Heartbreak

Originally published on Sun April 28, 2013 5:35 am

George Jones died on Friday, April 26, 2013 in Nashville, Tenn. He was 81 years old. Jones, who had a voice that he could bend and pull to make listeners feel his pain, made a career of turning hard living into heartbreaking songs. In 2010, he spoke with All Things Considered's Melissa Block for an installment in NPR's 50 Great Voices series.


On the front porch of George Jones' sweeping estate south of Nashville are two round tiles, each with a drawing of a rocking chair and a slash through it, a reminder that he doesn't need your rocking chair.

Jones is perfectly tailored, wearing ostrich-leather shoes and that impeccable swoop of white hair. He performed about 90 concerts this year at age 79. Retire? No way.

"I don't know what I'd do with myself," Jones tells All Things Considered host Melissa Block. "We don't wanna lay down and give up just 'cause we're old. Young people think we're crazy. Oh, one morning you'll wake up and look in the mirror like I did and say, 'What the devil happened? Whoo! Where did it go, oh, Lordy!' "

Jones was the youngest of eight kids, born during the Depression in a log house in the Big Thicket, East Texas. His family didn't have electricity, but they did have a battery-powered radio. If you want to figure out where George Jones' voice comes from, he'll tell you — it all started there, drifting in over the static.

"The only music we ever listened to out in the piney woods was Roy Acuff and the Grand Ole Opry," Jones says. "That was the only night of the week I was allowed to lay in the middle of the bed with Mama and Daddy, just long enough to hear Roy Acuff sing; then I had to go back to bed."

In 1954, Jones was 22 when he got his first record deal with Starday Records in Beaumont, Texas. His producer was Pappy Daily.

"Finally, Pappy Daily came in there and said, 'George, I've heard you sing like Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell. I just want to know one thing: Can you sing like George Jones?' I said, 'I thought you wanted to sell some records,' " Jones says, laughing.

Whatever it is — the alchemy of Roy, Hank and Lefty, mixed with his own wrenching ache — Jones can pull and bend notes till they make you hurt.

Pure Emotion

That voice has turned on a new generation of country singers, including country star Dierks Bentley, who says he is proud to call Jones a friend. He even hangs a George Jones bottle opener on the keys to his truck. And what he hears in these songs is pure emotion.

"He digs into every lyric, every word and milks every emotion out of that word or syllable," Bentley says. "It's really unique. It's definitely his own style — no one else can copy it."

"Do you have a favorite George Jones song?" Block asks.

" 'Walk Through This World With Me' is probably my favorite love song," Bentley says. "It's so sparse musically, and it leaves this huge space for his voice to really spread out in."

Sometimes people say it sounds like Jones sings through clenched teeth. Bentley says it's like Jones is "holding that pain back." Either way, Jones sings what he knows: decades of hard drinking, drug addiction, violent rages, bankruptcy, failed rehab and failed marriages (most famously with his singing partner, Tammy Wynette) all filter into his songs.

"I'm crazy over a ballad — one that's got a story, that's different from something you've heard before," Jones says.

A Signature Song

That brings us to "He Stopped Loving Her Today," a song about unrequited love that is taken to the grave: "He said I'll love you till I die / She told him you'll forget in time / As the years went slowly by / She still preyed upon his mind."

After Jones finished recording this song, he told producer Billy Sherrill it was too morbid.

"I said, 'Billy, I love the song,' but I said, 'It ain't gonna sell. It's too sad,' " Jones says. "But anyhow, how wrong could one person be? That turned out to be the signature song of my whole, entire career."

Jones has made a career out of heartbreak and pain, but he says it's not who he is as a person.

"It's not that you're unhappy when you're doing ballads," Jones says. "It's just that I try to live the song. During that three minutes or whatever it is, you try to step in that person's shoes. It seems for some reason the words tell you right away that you know how they feel."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, in our 50 Great Voices series, a singer who's revered by everyone from Bob Dylan to Elvis Costello to Keith Richards.

(Soundbite of song, "The Window Above")

Mr. GEORGE JONES (Singer): (Singing) I've been living a new way of life that I love so.

BLOCK: George Jones. His voice is country music.

(Soundbite of song, "Why Baby Why")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) Tell me why, baby. Why, baby. Why baby, why you make me cry baby...

(Soundbite of song, "The Race is On")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) I feel tears welling up cold and deep inside like my heart sprung up with string...

(Soundbite of song, "Golden Ring")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) Golden ring with one tiny little stone, waiting there.

(Soundbite of song, "Rocking Chair")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) I don't need your rocking chair your Geritol or your Medicare...

BLOCK: On the front porch of George Jones' sweeping estate south of Nashville are two round tiles, each with a drawing of a rocking chair and a slash through it - a reminder that he does not need your rocking chair.

Unidentified Woman: This is George.

Mr. JONES: Hi, you all.

BLOCK: Melissa Block. It's so great to meet you.

Mr. JONES: Nice to see you.

BLOCK: George Jones is perfectly tailored, wearing ostrich leather shoes and with that impeccable swoop of white hair. This year, at age 79, he performed about 90 concerts dates. Retire? Nah-uh.

Mr. JONES: I don't know what I'd do with myself. We don't want to lay down and give up just because we're old and young people think we're crazy. Oh, one morning you'll wake up and look in the mirror like I did and say, what the devil happened? Whoa, where did it go?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: Oh, Lordy.

(Soundbite of song, "White Lightning")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) Mighty, mighty pleasing, pappy's corn squeezing. Shhh, white lightning.

BLOCK: George Jones was the youngest of eight kids, born in a log house in the Big Thicket, East Texas, during the Depression. No electricity, but they did have a battery powered radio. And if you want to figure out where George Jones' voice comes from, he'll tell you it all started there, drifting in over the static.

Mr. JONES: The only music we ever listened to out in the piney woods was Roy Acuff and the Grand Ole Opry. That was the only night of the week I was allowed to lay in the middle of the bed with Momma and Daddy, just long enough to hear Roy Acuff sing, then I had to go back to bed.

(Soundbite of song, "Great Speckled Bird")

Mr. ROY ACUFF (Singer): (Singing) What a beautiful thought I am thinking...

Mr. JONES: After that, along came Hank Williams.

(Soundbite of song, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry")

Mr. HANK WILLIAMS (Singer): (Singing) I'm so lonesome I could cry...

Mr. JONES: And then Lefty came along.

BLOCK: Lefty Frizzell.

Mr. JONES: And he was so different, you know.

(Soundbite of song, "Always Late")

Mr. LEFTY FRIZZELL (Singer): (Singing) Always late with your kisses...

Mr. JONES: My Lord, he'd take a word and twist it around. And the way he would do that phrasing, that just tore me up.

(Soundbite of song, "Always Late")

Mr. FRIZZELL: (Singing) Won't you come to my arms sweet darling and stay? Always late...

BLOCK: George Jones was 22 when he got his first record deal. It was 1954, Starday Records in Beaumont, Texas with producer Pappy Dailey.

Mr. JONES: Finally, Pappy Dailey came in there and said: George, I've heard you sing like Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, let's see, Lefty Frizzell. I just want to know one thing, can you sing like George Jones? I said, well, I thought you wanted to sell some records.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "No Money in this Deal")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) I'm going to buy myself another 'cause there ain't no money in this deal. I mean it, baby. There's no money in this deal.

BLOCK: Whatever it is - the alchemy of Roy, Hank, and Lefty, mixed with his own wrenching ache - George Jones can pull and bend notes till they make you hurt. Listen to him drape his voice here.

(Soundbite of song, "She Thinks I Still Care")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) Just because I rang her number by mistake today she thinks I still care...

BLOCK: And that voice has turned on a new generation of country singers.

Mr. DIERKS BENTLEY (Singer): I'm a fan club member of two bands, U2 and George Jones.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Country star Dierks Bentley is proud to call George Jones a good friend. He even hangs a George Jones bottle opener on the keys to his truck. And what he hears in these songs is pure emotion.

Mr. BENTLEY: He digs into every lyric, every word and milks every piece of emotion out of that word or syllable. And it's really unique. It's definitely his own style. Nobody else can copy it.

BLOCK: Do you have a favorite George Jones song?

Mr. BENTLEY: "Walk Through This World With Me" probably is my favorite love song. It's so sparse musically and it just really leaves this huge space for his voice to really spread out in.

(Soundbite of song, "Walk Through This World With Me")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) Walk through this world with me, go where I go...

BLOCK: I've heard people say this, too, that he sometimes sounds like he's singing through clenched teeth, kind off.

Mr. BENTLEY: Yeah.

(Singing) I need you so.

I do see that. Singing through clenched teeth is kind of holding that pain back. I don't know.

(Soundbite of song, "A Drunk Can't Be A Man")

Mr. JONES: He embarrasses his child and wife. Lord, he leads a miserable life, but still he thinks the bottle is his right hand...

BLOCK: George Jones sings what he knows - decades of hard drinking, drug addiction and violent rages, bankruptcy, rehab that failed, marriages that failed - most famously, with his longtime singing partner Tammy Wynette. All the hard stuff filters into his songs.

Mr. JONES: I'm crazy over a ballad, you know, one that's got a story and it's different, you know, from something you've heard before.

BLOCK: Which brings us to this: A song about unrequited love taken to the grave.

(Soundbite of song, "He Stopped Loving Her Today")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) He said I'll love you till I die. She told him you'll forget in time. As the years went slowly by, she still preyed upon his mind.

BLOCK: After George Jones finished recording this song, he told producer Billy Sherrill it was too morbid.

Mr. JONES: I said, Billy, I love the song. But I said, it ain't going to sell. It's too sad. But anyhow, how wrong could one person be? That turned out to be the signature song of my whole entire career.

(Soundbite of song, "He Stopped Loving Her Today")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) He stopped loving her today. They placed a wreath upon his door. And soon they'll carry him away. He stopped loving her today.

BLOCK: I think people think of George Jones' songs a lot of the time as being songs about heartbreak, songs about pain.

Mr. JONES: Yeah. It's not that you're unhappy when you're doing ballad. It's just that I try to live the song, during that three minutes or whatever it is. Oh, Lord. You know you try to step in that person's shoes. Seems for some reason the words tell you right away that you know how they feel.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Jones, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much for letting us come visit you.

Mr. JONES: Thank you all for being so nice. I do appreciate very much you all coming.

(Soundbite of song, "Choices")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) If I had listened I wouldn't be here today, living and dying with the choices I made.

BLOCK: George Jones, one of our 50 Great Voices. We spoke at his home in Franklin, Tennessee.

(Soundbite of song, "Choices")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) Living and dying with the choices I made.

BLOCK: You're listening ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.