People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they lead.
– James Baldwin
George Jones was sure he’d finally found it. After years of casting about, he’d found his voice again, and driving back home with the rough mix he’d just picked up in Nashville, he was so excited, so relieved, that he just had to share it with someone. So he had his stepdaughter on the cell phone, telling her that she just had to hear this new song he’d cut, that it was called “Choices”, and that he’d chosen it for his next single. He didn’t tell her he was drunk.
He was fiddling with the tape deck, trying to cue up the song so she could listen on the line, and then, out of nowhere, the bridge came up. His black Lexus sport utility vehicle met the concrete abutment and he was crashing, and then he was trapped.
It took two hours for the emergency workers to cut him out, and on the way to the hospital, his heart stopped twice. He had a torn liver, and a collapsed lung that kept him on a ventilator for eleven days. Later, he contracted pneumonia and had to go back on the ventilator, all of which damaged his vocal cords. But he was alive. When he went to speak, though, his voice — so strong and rich on that rough mix — was gone. Just as he’d found his voice again, it was gone.
A current country radio staple by Chad Brock tells us that “Thunder’s just a noise, boys/Lightning does the work.” This stultifyingly noisy record doesn’t follow its own advice, but that’s hardly surprising. Today’s big-time country radio, with few (though notable) exceptions, is all thunder. Thundering hyperbolic vocals, thundering showboat guitars, thundering arena-rock drums — all of it simultaneously demanding our attention, yet, like thunder in a sunny sky, heralding nothing but hot air.
George Jones’ voice is lightning. When his new single “Choices” comes on the radio these days, the world is suddenly charged with meaning. “I’ve had choices since the day that I was born,” he sings the Billy Yates/Mike Curtis song quietly, matter of factly even. “There were voices that told me right from wrong. If I had listened, no I wouldn’t be here today, living and dying with the choices I’ve made.”
He’s singing the cold hard truth, though he does it with such subtlety that it’s only the truth you notice, not the singing. He could almost be speaking to us if his voice, now worn and weathered by tobacco, drink and years, weren’t so completely musical, so inherently melodic. The record’s arrangement, fashioned by producer Keith Stegall, isn’t much more than a rhythm track; it never competes with that remarkable voice.
Jones sounds broken yet dignified, filled with a wisdom too long in coming but welcome all the same. He’s all restraint and humility, but he picks his spots, too. He chooses to sink low at “I liked drinking”; he chooses to cry on “If I could go back, oh Lord knows I’d run.” When he gets to the word “choices” itself, he swallows it hard, like a bitter pill but one the doctor ordered. On “Choices”, Jones’ voice doesn’t simply demand attention; it requires it.
“Choices” looks to be Jones’ first significant solo hit in over a decade. His new album Cold Hard Truth is, so far, among the best-selling of his career — and just plain among the best, a claim easier to put to the test now that most of Jones’ greatest work is finally available on compact disc. The time is right, once again, for a George Jones revival. But now Jones has lost his voice.
“For about two months there I didn’t even talk, other than just a few words every now and then,” Jones said over the phone in July from his home in Franklin, Tennessee, just four and a half months since the choice that nearly killed him the afternoon of March 6, on Highway 96 just south of Nashville. “I especially didn’t sing for about four months. And when I finally was able to sing a little, I didn’t have my lows anymore — couldn’t hardly control my voice at that low of a level, you know — because I had really, you know, relaxed my vocal cords for so long. So I went to a throat doctor and he said, ‘What you need to do is just to sing, sing, sing.’”
For Jones, “sing, sing, sing” is a cure that just might take. It’s what he does best, after all, what he’s always seemed driven to do. George Jones sings and sings and sings. And, looking for clues, we listen closely to hear what he has to say.
By now, the details of Jones’ story are well-known. The most oft-repeated tales are, no doubt, both revealing and reductionist. They simplify a complex life down to a handful of entertaining anecdotes that masquerade as insight. And yet those stories, told and retold in the hope they might provide some key to Jones and the way he sings, are about all we have to go on, save that voice itself and the way it makes us feel. So the stories are repeated, in solemn tones, until they have become something like a legend.
George Glenn Jones was born September 12, 1931, in Saratoga, Texas, the last of eight children to George Washington Jones and his wife Clara. He began to sing, it seemed, almost before he could talk. He especially loved the old hymns and holiness songs that his mama taught him. Though at times desperately poor, the family managed to get their first radio in 1938. On Saturday nights, when the Grand Ole Opry was broadcast, George would fall asleep in his parents’ bed only after his mother had promised to wake him if his musical heroes, Bill Monroe and Roy Acuff, made an appearance. Decades later, Roy Acuff would declare: “I would give anything if I could sing like George Jones.”
When he was 10, Jones sang for awhile with a husband-wife revival team, Sister Annie & Brother Byrl. For his eleventh birthday, his daddy bought him his first guitar, a little Gene Autry model, and after the family moved to the port city of Beaumont, George began using it to accompany himself while busking for spare change on street corners. More than once during these years, his father would come home drunk in the wee small hours of the morning, yank George out of bed, and force him to sing. If he didn’t sing, he got beat. He sang.
By the time he was 14, he had run away, eventually hooking up with another husband-wife country duo, Eddie & Pearl. It was largely with them, in the bloodbucket joints of East Texas, that he graduated from boyhood to manhood, from beer to whiskey, from Roy Acuff to a new hero, Hank Williams. In 1949, he even got an opportunity to back Hank at a radio gig, but he was so nervous he never hit a lick. Find your own voice, Hank told him. Sing like George Jones.