30 April 2013

Who's Gonna Fill His Shoes?

I know I'm late on this, but I've been in Chicago where I was reminded hourly about how my health has conspired against me (more on that in a future post). Somehow, it actually seems appropriate that I should be taken by surprise away from home, in physical misery, by the news that George Jones had passed away.
In a pawn shop in Chicago, on a sunny summer day...
I had the opportunity last December to go see The Possum perform in concert for my birthday, but I elected instead to get together with as many of my friends as I could. It was the right choice, of course; I have no regrets about that. I do, however, lament that my stupid guts conspired to stop me going to Carrollton, where he made what turned out to be his final meet and greet for Herb Kinman Chevrolet after decades of annual appearances.
He said, "Son, you just don't understand. It's not the car I want
It's the brunette in your 'Vette that turns me on!"
Jones's commercial heyday had already come and gone by the time I began to pay attention to country music. I grew up with it, of course, and he was one of my dad's favorite singers but I was a kid without much of an ear for old school honky tonk warbling. Of course, it was inevitable that I would later come to appreciate his vocal talent and to understand just why none of the scandalous shenanigans that dogged him throughout his career ever seemed to undermine the respect that he earned as a performer.
There's nothing better once you've had the best.
The first time that Jones stopped me in my tracks was through the brilliant music video for his 1987 single, "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes?" It was a love letter to the genre and its history. Country music celebrates its forebears with more reverence, I think, than most other genres (though I suspect jazz gives it a run for its money in that department). Even as a child, that kind of thing resonated with me. I guess I was a born historian.

My family owned and operated a consignment shop for twenty years (until my unreliability due to Crohn's became an influencing factor in closing our doors). In addition to our consignors, we also had countless regular and semi-regular shoppers. I enjoyed chatting with one woman in particular, whose father was a longtime Jones fan. When I worked in the front of the shop, I picked the music and it was often country. I'd go through phases of any given artist, so she often caught me playing some Possum when she came in to shop. We'd chat and I remember her often talking about how her dad loved not just Jones, but the steel guitar on all his songs.

I haven't seen her or her two daughters (both probably adults by now) since we closed the shop, but I found myself thinking of them tonight. I hope they're all doing well. The girls were always polite and patient while their mom and I commiserated about country music or other odd topics. I have no doubt they've both become fine young women.
The jukebox is playing a honky tonk song
"One more," I keep saying, "and then I'll go home."
Of course, the world was, is and probably always will be full of Jones admirers. My wife's uncle had a budding career as a country singer in the 1970s. He even cut an eponymous album. The influence of Jones on him at that point is pretty evident even before you put on the record itself; the album cover itself could have been one of Jones's. That wasn't a put-on for the album, by the way. I met the guy. He really did just look a lot like The Possum naturally. His name was also George, though of course that wasn't even a coincidence - it was a statistical likelihood for men of their vintage. He did get to meet his musical hero, I think when they both performed at Jamboree once.
I'd hear you on the radio
I sure did like your sound
Say, it's good to know there's still
A few ol' country boys around
In 2009, I read Jones's autobiography, I Lived to Tell It All. I could have sworn I had reviewed it either here on this blog or on Goodreads, but I can't find such a review. I will say, four years later what stands out most to me is how clearly he emphasized how overwhelmed he was by being a celebrity. He was a nervous wreck about that part of being a musician, even after decades of receiving the kind of external validation that would put most others at risk of arrogance. For Jones, though, it worked differently. It made him insecure and uncomfortable. I'm just a nobody, of course, so I don't pretend to have any experience with the scale of his experiences. Still, I certainly identified with that tendency to freak out over what be welcomed by most people.
Maybe I ran when I should have walked
I held it inside when I should have talked
But I always get it right with you
George Jones was to music what Daniel Day-Lewis is to acting. Most artists sing the lyrics the way that most actors read their lines, but when you hear a Jones song it's something different. It's palpable that he tapped into the emotional center of whatever the song is. Whether it's the silliness of "High Tech Redneck" or the devastation of "He Stopped Loving Her Today", hearing him is why songs are often characterized as three minute stories.

It would certainly be tempting (and obvious) to quote from the iconic "He Stopped Loving Her Today" at the end of this stream-of-consciousness reflection on George Jones but somehow it doesn't feel right to me. I leave you instead with the following:
It just don't get any better than this
That's about as good as good ever gets
If there's anything better, it's something I missed
It just don't get any better than this