A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.
I am, and always have been, a depressive. I probably always will be. It’s hardwired into my DNA. But there are tangible tools I can use to fight depression, like anti-depressants, therapy, exercise, pop culture, and having a strong support system. Most importantly, I can fight depression by limiting my exposure to tear-jerking George Jones ballads. I don’t mean that as an insult: When George Jones shoots for the heart, no one in popular music has better aim. He is country music’s heartbreak kid, the sultan of sadness, the prince of pathos, the duke of despair, the archduke of anguish, the titan of tearjerkers.
Jones indirectly helped determine the course of Nashville Or Bust. At one point, the plan was to listen to only country music for an entire year. But then I figured that an entire year of songs like “He Stopped Loving Her Today” or “A Good Year For The Roses” (a song about heartbreak and sub-par lawn maintenance) would push me to the brink of suicidal despair.
I try not to rely too heavily on secondary source material for this series, but I’m going to make an exception this time out, since I Lived To Tell It All, Jones’ ghostwritten 1996 autobiography, is just too damn juicy to ignore. So consider this a crossover between Nashville Or Bust and Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club. I Lived To Tell It All, an impossibly sordid account of all the horrible (and secretly awesome) things Jones did while drunk and high on Bolivian Marching Powder, is so lurid that the famous anecdote about Jones once driving 10 miles on a lawn mower to a liquor store after his wife confiscated his car keys is probably only the 20th juiciest anecdote.
An Olympian level of debauchery is expected, even demanded, from country legends, but Jones takes hard living to grotesque comic extremes. He makes bad-asses like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard look like namby-pamby Promise Keepers by comparison. In a genre rife with hard-drinking, hard-drugging, mentaloso cowboys, Jones was the hard-drinkingest, hard-druggingest, craziest singing cowpoke around. If there were a Hall Of Fame for wanton excess, he’d be a charter member.
There are several kinds of ghostwritten memoirs. There’s the kind where a professional writer polishes a celebrity’s prose and helps turn it into something fit for publication. Then there are ghostwritten memoirs where a star tells the ghostwriter his life story, and the ghostly scribe transforms hours of reminiscences into a book. I Lived To Tell It All belongs to a third category I like to call “investigative” or “forensic” memoirs, where a ghostwriter investigates his subject’s life, talking to his ex-wives, buddies, collaborators, and enemies, and trying to piece together the subject’s narrative from scraps of memory, like the reporter in Citizen Kane.
Jones repeatedly asserts that his brain is so fried from decades of alcoholism and cocaine addiction that he can barely remember what he had for breakfast, let alone the details of his early years. At one point, he was dragged kicking and screaming into a mental hospital (not for the first time) and given an IQ test. He scored a 74, which means all the cocaine he’d hoovered up his nose rendered him mildly retarded, if only temporarily.
Jones remembers very little, yet he recalls enough to refute angrily, on a point-by-point basis, many of the charges ex-wife Tammy Wynette leveled at him in her autobiography, and by extension, the TV movie it inspired. Jones cops to being a drunken, gun-crazy, coke-addled, violent, unpredictable madman during his wasted years, but categorically denies being the drunken, gun-crazy, coke-addled, violent, unpredictable madman depicted in Wynette’s book.
The man widely hailed as the greatest living country singer had the requisite hardscrabble childhood defined by tragedy and physical abuse from his hard-working, binge-drinking, proud, poor, and miserable father. Jones found salvation in music and escape in the bottle, but in his first releases, he blatantly aped the vocal stylings of his hero, Hank Williams. “No Money In This Deal,” Jones’ first single, is an obvious Williams knock-off, but it’s fantastic all the same. Thankfully, Jones listened to those who suggested that it’s better to be the world’s best George Jones than a very skillful Hank Williams impersonator.
Jones’ voice deepened and aged with time. The high, Hank Williams-like squeal of his early days was replaced by a soulful baritone, but it was still high and wild, and the picking and instrumentation still owed a mighty debt to Luke the Drifter’s alter ego on kick-ass early singles like “Burn Your Playhouse Down.”
Jones’ uptempo songs serve two purposes. They provide a welcome change of pace from his tear-in-your-beer lovelorn ballads, and they serve as a welcome reminder that the world is more than just a hopeless miasma of sadness and romantic suffering. Take “White Lightning.” Jones inhabits a broad emotional palette: When he’s sad, there’s no one sadder, but when he’s happy, he exudes infectious joy like few others. “White Lightnin’” was written by J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, which I didn’t know before reading Jones’ book, but it makes a lot of sense, as the song shares an awful lot of goofy musical DNA with “Chantilly Lace.”
Though Jones had been married twice before and sired three children with his first two wives, his marriage to Tammy Wynette captivated country music and pop culture as a whole. They were country’s answer to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, mega-stars whose tempestuous private lives spilled over into the music they made. The duo toured extensively together and recorded songs that seemed to offer a voyeuristic glimpse into their private lives, most notably “The Ceremony” and “Golden Ring.” The former is 200-proof country kitsch: It professes to be Jones and Wynette’s wedding vows in song form. It is a testament to the public’s deep investment in both singers, separately and together, that such a song was released at all.
“Golden Ring” is a far more artful and enduring, not to mention prescient. It’s a heartbreaking ballad that looks at the life cycle of a marriage through the prism of a ring a couple buy in hopes of transforming a “cold metallic thing” into a testament to their everlasting love. They begin with the brightest of hopes, but by the end of the song, the ring has been returned to a pawnshop in Chicago, a victim of a love and marriage that wouldn’t last. The song has the succinct power and elegant rhyming structure of a great short story. It also seems to comment ruefully on the fragile marriage of the famous couple singing it. In Jones’ world, love almost invariably leads to heartbreak, and hopes exist to be dashed.
Jones’ proverbial nightmare descent into coke and alcohol only accelerated following his high-profile divorce from Wynette. By the late ’70s, Jones was down and out. His constant absences from concerts—he showed up at George Jones shows less frequently than even casual fans—earned him the nickname “No Show Jones,” and cocaine and alcohol drove him insane. At one point, the perpetually trigger-happy Jones fired some shots in the direction of his buddy/songwriter Peanut, leading to the following sentence in Jones’ book, which may be the most awesome in the history of sordid celebrity tell-alls: “Peanut has been a friend for years, despite my arrest for his attempted murder, and in the space of a moment I knew he’d had enough.”
I always think it’s nice when a friendship can overcome something as minor as attempted murder, or at least charges of attempted murder. I’ll always be glad Keith Phipps has gotten over that unfortunate incident where I stabbed him repeatedly. What can I say? I was having a bad day. Oh, but it gets so much worse. The following passage, from Jones’ late-’70s downward spiral, is the most queasily intimate, embarrassing confession in a book full of them:
No one could any longer deny the descent of George Jones because I often refused to be George Jones. I took on two additional and dominant personalities. I even named them. One was “Dedoodle The Duck,” and the other was the “Old Man.” I quacked like the duck while speaking English, and I moaned like the old man, again in English. I went on for hours and occasionally days, unable to speak in my natural voice. I instead spoke only as Dedoodle and the Old Man. I was a person possessed. The duck sounded like Donald Duck, and the Old Man something like Walter Brennan. They had personalities and passionate convictions of their own. Neither would take shit off of the other.
Sometimes I drove down the road and the duck’s voice began to come forward, antagonizing the old man. He’d call him a bad name and the Old Man would fire back.
“What the hell do you know?” the old man would say. “You’re only a young duck.”
“I’d rather be a young duck than a useless old fart.” The duck would insist.
Their voices would rise until they were shouting at each other. Their language was hard and aggressive. I’d try to steady the wheel. At times the car would veer under my shaking hand because the two voices were screaming so loudly and violently. They leaped out at me, and I trembled in vain to contain them.
My sanity was regularly taking a leave of absence. On more than one occasion, I struggled to pull the car to the side of the road, crying because I couldn’t make the voices stop. The duck and the old man made fun of me.
“So you’re the great George Jones,” one might say. “Wonder what people might think if they could see you now, dirty and stinking and bawling like a baby. World’s greatest country singer my ass. You ain’t nothing but pathetic shit.”
I couldn’t make that stop.
I think we can all agree that the above passage is
1. Agonizingly sad
2. Unmistakably tragic
3. A harrowing cautionary warning to, in the words of Johnny Cash, lay off that whiskey and let that cocaine be
4. Kinda hilarious
In light of the central role Dedoodle The Duck and the Old Man played in Jones’ crumbling psyche during his darkest days, the song “The King Is Gone (So Are You)” begins to seem less like a cute little story-song about a man so heartbroken and sad he begins to imagine Elvis Presley and Fred Flintstone are talking to him, and more like a harrowing glimpse into Jones’ fragmented psyche.
In the hyperbolic parlance of Robert Evans (or maybe Mr. Show’s parody of Evans), Jones had lurched into the gutter. But it was a gutter filled with a rainbow. That rainbow? A little song called “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a popular choice for the greatest country song of all time. All it took was three minutes and 15 seconds of masterful musical melodrama to take Jones from the bottom to the top. In the hands of anyone else, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” could easily have come across as hopelessly maudlin schmaltz. But like Frank Sinatra, Jones has a genius for inhabiting the emotions of a song, of getting inside lyrics and wringing every last bit of pathos or humor out of them.
There’s nothing subtle about Jones’ signature song. But the slick production and soaring strings work beautifully, lending the song a pop-operatic quality. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” tells the tale of a heartbroken man who stops pining for a lost love only when he dies. It’s an almost unbearably sad song, but there is a tiny glimmer of hope in the idea that through death, the unnamed protagonist can transcend the heartbreak and sadness that have been his constant companions.
Speaking of schmaltz, Jones scored one of his biggest later hits in 1985’s “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” a maudlin ballad oozing rose-colored nostalgia for the titans of country music. Jones asks a question I’ve intermittently pondered throughout this series: who are the Merle Haggards, Willie Nelsons, Hank Williams, and Johnny Cashes of today and tomorrow? Though I haven’t been listening to much contemporary country yet, the answer, it seems safe to say, is nobody. What makes “Their Shoes” mildly affecting is that Jones seems to be eulogizing himself as much as any of his legendary peers. If anyone else were singing the song, Jones would be listed prominently among the roster of all-time country greats who can never be replaced.
Gram Parsons used to assert his iconoclasm and true-blue country roots by saying that George Jones was his favorite poet. His friends used to marvel that a crew-cut hillbilly was able to make Parsons cry. That’s selling Jones and his legacy short. Jones wasn’t just the (formerly) crew-cut hillbilly that made Gram Parsons cry. Jones is the crew-cut hillbilly that made the whole world cry.
Up Next on Nashville or Bust:
Billy Joe Shaver