I figured I’d write about George Jones for “First Song of the Month,” and I figured I’d jump the gun and put it up today instead of on Wednesday. He was one of my very favorite singers of all time, someone I would think about on a daily basis. When an artist like that passes away, suddenly the whole world feels cheaper. I can’t think of a country singer better than him, past, present, or future. Country music has its towering, legendary writers, and its icons, and its total-package musicians, but it only had one George Jones and everybody pretty much knew no one else could touch him when it came to that voice. Like Johnny Cash, I imagine that as time goes on it will get harder and harder to believe there really even was a real George Jones, that the legend is going to devour the man, because those records are just going to grow and grow in stature until they loom above all the puny contemporary efforts of everyone who is still somewhat sincerely trying to make country music.
Jones’ death was announced today and by now a bunch of people have written a bunch of obituaries full of all manner of intense biographical details, so I don’t feel much need to go into that stuff. And people might have pointed you to this and that song a bunch of times, and hopefully they haven’t all pointed you to the same song. It’s difficult for me to pinpont a defining masterpiece with George Jones because he had so many from so many different decades. I don’t really know what else to do that won’t have been done by the time this goes up, so let’s just listen to this one song together. It’s a vocal performance from 1959 that I’ve always particularly loved, and it’s just another George Jones song, not his most famous, singled out almost randomly because I figured it wouldn’t get as much ink and also because, like so many of his other songs, it happens to be perfect.
“Mr. Fool” is from that period in country recording where everything all across the board pretty much sounded ravishing – it’s so hard to believe that there was a time you could turn on your radio in even the most backwater nowhere town and hear something this glorious come out of it pretty much every time. The pedal steel that opens the song is the perfect complement to Jones’ voice, swelling up richly, with a keening edginess to it that’s almost painful, that kind of digs into your heart slightly harder than it maybe should.
There’s a quality I hear really clearly in Jones’ voice in the first line of “Mr. Fool” that I’ve always identified with him, and that’s that there’s something very humble and earthy and plain about Jones on the surface, a kind of sweet and almost clumsy masculine ordinariness that slightly disarms you at first. He doesn’t really seem like a winner, he just seems like some guy, a normal guy, kind of bumbling around the garage. And then that voice goes into the high register on the line “but I won’t beg you not to go” and the bumbling guy suddenly climbs up the ladder of those notes and waves down to you from heaven. (Incidentally the way that leap into the higher octave on “beg” works in this song is perfect, on par with the octave leap in Arlen / Harburg’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the one that actually takes you over the rainbow; Jones starts out soberly talking to the listener and then suddenly tumbles up a beautiful run of notes until, with the highest note, he is begging us, almost frantic.)
Jones works his upper range – specifically the painful place in his range where strain comes in – like few singers. He makes it sound easy, but there’s a midrangey push in his high notes. It sounds like an ambulance siren blasting past you, like the only thing you can hear. The sound in his voice on the line “because I’ve always been a fool to cry for you” is just…it’s just righteous. As in spiritual, as in heavy, as in authoritative or right-seeming, as in just plain correct. Yep, that’s what singing is supposed to sound like. You could play that line for anyone in the world and they would get it. Contrasted with that high edge in his upper register, Jones’ return to the lower more talky stuff at the top of the next verse feels comforting, loving even. He is in total control of every emotion he’s making you feel, but he also doesn’t seem to be thinking about it too much. The way he stretches out the line “No one can ever call me ‘Mr. Fool’ no more” in that languid legato way is perfect and masterful.
Like Frank Sinatra, there’s something very essentially masculine about George Jones. Sinatra was cool and classy and seductive, but Jones, his equal in technique, is more like the actual men we know in real life, or maybe the men we are in real life. He’s desperate, and lonely, and sad. He’s sweet. He likes to get silly. He’s weak and he lets you down, or he’s devoted and loving. At times he’s hopeful and calm. He’s your dad or your grandfather or your neighbor or you, at your worst or your best. The masculinity of George Jones, the unwieldy humanity, grounds Jones’ voice so that, when those perfect moments roll around, something almost otherworldly takes over. It’s a masculine voice so pretty that it seems feminine, or it seems bigger than any category like that. It’s just a wave of emotion coming through a wave of sound, those perfect embracing low tones and that keening high edge that hurts.
That keening high edge…I’m so eternally jealous of it. Pretty much every aspect of Jones’ career has been copied by one or many other country musicians, but it’s the edge that particularly gets me, and has influenced me personally. It’s common in country music, but Jones does it better than anyone, particularly in his late 1950s and early 1960s material. It’s a hillbilly thing, but there’s something very rock and roll about the way Jones does it, the pushed feel of it. You can hear it anticipated in old-time 78rpm records from the 1920s, but you can also hear lesser copies of the same idea by rock singers like Keith Richards – those impossible high and chord-shredding harmonies on Exile on Main Street – or in Neil Young’s drunkest and mic-stand-colliding-est moments on Tonight’s the Night. But Richards’ and Young’s voices are ragged, imprecise instruments, and Jones’ voice is a scalpel. He targets the exact emotion he needs to zero in on and makes the cut in the exact right place, and the cut is deep, and before you know it there’s blood everywhere, but Jones has a steady hand and he’s not sweating. He’s done this a million times.
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