Critics' Picks

George Jones

There once was a time when I might not have been so quick to recommend a George Jones show. Not for any musical reasons, mind you: Jones still possesses country's most stunning voice. Rather, the old George Jones was less than reliable, such a raging drunk that he would drive his riding lawn mower to the local bar for a drink when his then-wife Tammy Wynette hid the car keys. But that was the George Jones of yore, the George Jones of legend. These days, a clean-and-sober Jones still likes riding on his mower, but now he does it to cut the lawn (in a delicious swoop of irony, because that's what he enjoys doing in his spare time). Thanks to his wife, Nancy, who is also his manager, Jones enjoys a stability and reliability that run counter to his wild-haired past. He's even one of the few Nashville veterans who continues to record for major labels while his peers either seek a new audience via rock record labels (Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings), or pasture in the fields of Branson, Missouri.

Yet the life Jones once lived still informs that magnificent voice. His tempestuous marriage to Tammy Wynette makes today's tabloid headlines look like kid's stuff. His taste for whiskey and cocaine helped create countless tales of a wild man on a tear. Jones has lived life hard and full, and it shows in the voice. Sure, he's no longer singing at full capacity, but there are still those moments in any Jones show where he sings right into that sweet spot, and you can hear the very essence of country music vocalizing, distilled down to its most potent and bracing elements. He sings like a dolphin gamboling in the waves, his voice swooping, leaping, moaning, sighing through the words, making the lyrics almost cinematic in the way he invests them with meaning through his delivery. When Jones hits those inspired notes, it's enough to send the shiver of truth and genuine emotion down your spinal chord.

And then there are the songs. From his early days recording for producer Pappy Daily in Houston come such classics as "Why Baby Why," "The Race Is On," "White Lightning," and "She Thinks I Still Care." Later, he refined heartbreak to high art with such hits as "The Grand Tour" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today." His duets with Wynette were like an aural tour of their marital adventures. Hell, he was even able to pull off such attempted 1990s updates as "High Tech Redneck" and still invest such stuff with his trademark vocal savoir-faire. His recovery from a serious car accident last year offers even more reason to catch Jones now while he's still with us, especially if you have never heard him sing in person. You can't even consider yourself a genuine country fan if you haven't yet been in the presence of the Lord of country singing.

Just to be in the presence of a legend is reason enough to catch Jones onstage. And even if his usually all-too-short performance seems rote, listen closely for those moments, those flashes of greatness that announce: Here's a man who has lived, loved, cried, battled with his demons, and come out alive. He can encapsulate the essence of real life in just the way he flies into a note, bending it, teasing the pitch, twisting the timbre. It's the stuff of greatness, and to hear it even in the slightest doses is to witness the great American folk art of country at its most potent and inspiring. George Jones performs May 5 at Billy Bob's Texas.

R.P.

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Rob Patterson

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