Grizzard was referring to the decline of country twang and to country’s increasing amount of sexual reference and content. He was not, for sure, referring to country megastar George Jones, who passed away April 26. George Jones was Twang Incorporated. It’s been said that the Twangster’s very life was a country song.
In many ways, Jones’ life was not exemplary. Married four times and given to drunkenness, Jones resembled Hank Williams as far as reliability is concerned. Many a country show promoters were left high-and-dry because Jones failed to appear. He wasn’t called “No Show Jones” for nothing.
Despite his flaws, Jones managed to be an icon for his entire career. His singing career remained steady; his personal life never was. If he was a rascal, he was a lovable one, always liked and praised by his contemporaries.
Even when “real country” (trains, Mama, prison, the rural life, faith, and twang) was experiencing hard times during the ’70s, George Jones’ nostrils never ceased to function. From 1955 to 2013 he was hardcore country. Occasionally he complained openly about country’s flirtations with other forms, once stating that country “just ain’t too country no more.”
Jones surely must have been pleased when ’80s artists such as Ricky Scaggs, George Strait, Randy Travis, and Newnan’s own Alan Jackson returned to both the sounds and themes of traditional country.
Alan Jackson’s “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” was a plea for other artists to let country be country and leave rock out of it. In a duet with George Strait, Jackson recorded “A Murder’s Been Committed Down on Music Row,” a reference to the Nashville record companies that were signing up young country rockers instead of traditionalists. Although George Strait claimed he and Jackson were merely having fun and not protesting, George Jones probably still appreciated the song.
For all his mournful lyrics, Jones never sang of the darker side of life. His playful “White Lightning,” a tribute to moonshine, gave my parents pause; they preferred Jones’ “Family Bible.” “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?” was a deeply respectful acknowledgement of Jones’ country predecessors; “She Thinks I Still Care” is an effective lesson in irony for every English student. “Near You” was a sweet, simple love song sung with his wife, also a legend, Tammy Wynette.
Jones’ biggest chart topper and biggest weeper was “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a good song about a man whose unrequited love for a woman goes with him all the way to the grave. Two years in a row this song won the Country Music Association’s song of the year.
People who don’t like literature would still be hard pressed to deny the influence (the joy, the sheer fun) that Mark Twain injected into American literature and culture, or the influence (the wisdom, the way with words) that Shakespeare or Tolstoy had on the entire world. Anyone who doesn’t particularly enjoy art still appreciates Norman Rockwell and Currier & Ives for their depictions of American life. Likewise, non-lovers of country music, to fully understand the dynamics of cultural history, must acknowledge country’s role and impact.
For instance, from the ’20s on through the ’60s, country music (and Southern gospel), whether instrumental or lyrical, buoyed many a Deep South family through its poverty. In my lifetime, this musical form has gone from being dubbed “hillbilly” (because from Scotland and Ireland its mournful tales of loss landed in Appalachia) to “country and western,” (because of the ’40s Texas swing influence) to simply “country” (probably because record companies, now calling the shots, preferred it).
I remember my family actually circling up to listen to and stare quietly at the radio while Nashville’s WSM Saturday night Grand Ole Opry played loud and clear.
Being a little worry-wart during boyhood, mainly from watching my father struggle, it was a stress-reliever to see him forget the crops and to grin at the fiddling, the steel guitar and the golden-throated radio announcers. George Jones was in the middle of it all.
But I have to be honest. My father didn’t like George Jones. He thought he was silly. He still paid him a stellar compliment, however, when he first saw him on black and white television at a neighbor’s house. “Well, I’ll give ’im this: There’s no ‘pretend’ about ’im.”
That’s one reason I liked George Jones. Like the best of country, he was authentic. He was always George Jones.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher.