George Jones was the first nationally established country artist I ever wrote about. We’re going back to the early ’80s here, a time when Jones, Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard played Rupp Arena on a near-annual basis.
For Jones, who died this morning, this was the second heyday of a storied career, an era that directly followed the mammoth hit status of He Stopped Loving Her Today. That song was over the top, a sweeping orchestral account with the sentimental force of a hurricane. But Jones let that extraordinary voice underplay the whole thing. He rode the song’s story line of emotional devastation the way you and I drive to the grocery. Maybe it was because the route was so familiar to him. But that didn’t mean his singing couldn’t flip on a dime when a tricky passage emerged. Jones could color a phrase, a verse – shoot, even a word – with a controlled blast of genuine rural desperation at a moment’s notice. It was the kind of combative, intuitive device that, once detonated, left you thinking. ‘Where in the world did that come from?’
Of course, Jones was regularly the master of his own reckless destiny. That he lived to be 81 after all the drugs, drink and divorce – not to mention the car wrecks, both real and metaphorical – is something of a country miracle.
So volatile was his offstage life that one never knew whether he was capable of tracking his onstage obligations. When I began writing about him, the nickname ‘No Show’ Jones was serious business. I never covered a show he didn’t make, but I heard all kinds of stories. I remember one reporter in Richmond being so astounded that Jones didn’t bail on a regional show that his review bore the headline “No Show Jones Shows Up.”
Jones’ prime performance years in Lexington became true occasions. The greatest probably came in 1987 when he headlined a Rupp concert but championed the then-rookie show opener, Randy Travis, as the heir apparent to the country traditionalist crown. Three years later, the two shared another Rupp bill, only with Travis as headliner.
Jones last strode onto a Rupp stage two years ago, when he made a surprise appearance at a Kenny Chesney show. He looked and sounded frail – severely so. The spirit was luminous, of course. But it was clear that the end of the touring road was at hand. He retired in 2012. Now he’s gone.
As country singers go, George Jones flat-out wrote the book. Generations tried to replicate his style. None came even remotely close. Maybe the intensities of the firestorms that became everyday life for Jones scared them off. Everyone wanted to be the Possum, it seemed. But no one was up to walking in his shoes.