I’m serving Saipan a slice of Americana today, as we note the passing of a uniquely American musician. Country music legend George Jones passed away April 26 in Nashville, Tenn., at the age of 81.
His music career spanned almost 60 years, and he was signed to his first contract soon after he got out of the U.S. Marines.
Jones was such a legend that even the city-slicker press paid him heed. Major papers carried stories about his death and life. The New York Times noted, entirely correctly, “His Life Was a Country Song,” a reference to the fact that country songs, like Jones himself, have an element of honky tonk, hard drinking, and hard consequences.
If you had to name a single voice that characterizes country music, it would probably be either George Jones or Merle Haggard. But you don’t have to choose one or the other: Jones and Haggard recorded some songs together.
In fact, many country singers collaborated with each other, performed with each other, and mentioned each other in their songs. That sort of friendly cooperation is hard to imagine if you’re used to Saipan’s pull-the-other-guy-down crab bucket behavior, but, well, there it is.
Much, but not all, of Jones’ music was mournful and soulful, marking disappointments in living and loving, invoking images of a down-and-out guy in scuffed-up cowboy boots slouched over a drink in a tavern.
He even considered that equation from the bartender’s perspective in his song Bartender’s Blues.
More upbeat fare often featured honky-tonk fun and shenanigans, marking boozy, boot-stompin’ hi-jinx.
Of his many hits, the utterly depressing He Stopped Loving Her Today is probably his most famous. It’s about a man who carries a heartache to his grave. Or maybe it’s the heartache that carries the man to the grave.
Hearing that song is like having your insides pulled out with pliers. Many argue that it’s the best country song of all time. And it’s certainly proof, as if we needed more, than a well-aimed arrow from Cupid is as dangerous as a Howitzer.
Jones himself foresaw the time when the legendary country singers were gone. His 1985 hit, Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes, contemplated just that situation.
If you skulk around the Internet you can find an old Country Music Television video of that song, which is delightfully kitschy and reminds me of places I lived in the rural south. When I see it I crave a moon pie and a Dixie beer.
The origins of country music go way back to, uh, well, don’t look at me. I’ve got no idea. But if He Stopped Loving Her Today is the genre’s iconic benchmark, I’ll note that it came out in 1980.
It sure proved to be an auspicious start for that decade. I remember the airwaves carrying many of the legends: George Jones, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, David Allen Coe, Hank Williams Jr., Crystal Gayle, Conway Twitty, Charlie Daniels, and Willie Nelson, just to name a few.
It wasn’t just the radio that was buzzing. Country themes were popular on TV and in movies at the time. This momentum had been building since the 1970s, when truck drivers were often depicted as modern cowboys. But, whether with trucks or without, this fare often glamorized a rural, rebel spirit, and country music was part of the show.
For example, The Dukes of Hazzard television series, running from 1979 to 1985, featured a couple of mischievous, but noble, good ol’ boys. They spent a lot of time speeding around in their hot rod trying to evade the local constabulary. Meanwhile, and I must mention this for posterity, the hometown girl, Daisy Duke, was revving some engines as well, wiggling around in high heel shoes and denim shorts. The show was narrated by Waylon Jennings and he also recorded the theme song.
Jennings and Jones performed together, and some of that music was great. It’s hard to believe that they are both gone now, Jennings having passed away in 2002.
Jones was certainly a legend on his own. But when I tug on that notion I wind up pulling a lot of the roots and soil with it, since so much of it was interconnected within its mutually-nourishing niche. How can you separate a guy from his culture when he helped define it?
So we can ask the question that Jones famously asked all those years ago: Who’s gonna fill their shoes?
If that question had a solution, Jones wouldn’t have asked it to begin with.
After all, when the irreplaceable man asks about replacements, the answer is just plain silence.
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.