Saturday, April 27, 2013
George, We're Ready
Sheesh. Yesterday gravity quit working. Then there's this one:
I heard a story yesterday on NPR about him. When he was a little poor kid living in east Texas, near Beaumont, he had a great voice. He went out and sang on the street one day, for two hours, and made enough money in a tip jar to feed the whole family for two weeks (he recounted later). He took that money and went to an arcade, and spent it all.
It rained all day Sunday, and in the afternoon Libby and I spent a good bit of time listening to various George Jones cuts on youtube. It was a good time to listen to Mr. Jones. Bobby Dylan was wrong. He did know what was happening. Allus. We wondered a bit, like so many of the commenters on youtube, what had happened to country music. There's probably not one answer, and the ones that are there live at different levels. In some ways it's like what happened to NASCAR. Used to be you bought or even rented a fast car, took it to some track, and ran the hell out of it. And maybe you won some money, maybe even enough to get to the next race. Country was like that. Somebody showed up with something that kicked ass. Some stuff lasted. At some unexpected point there was a new guy in town. Everybody went and listened. The writers bought him a drink.
And just like NASCAR, people got killed. Small planes crashed. Buses ran off the road. The singers ran off the road sometimes too. Waylon Jennings says he did over three hundred dates one year and lost $200,000. Hank Williams, who wrote "House of Gold" posted above? He died in the back of a black Cadillac on New Year's Day, going to a gig. I remember hearing that news on the radio, in Raleigh, in that period in the early '50s when, on Saturdays, WRAL ran a live music program from Central Prison which featured inmates with musical talent. It was country music.
All these people had lived through World War II. Kids from that era fell in love and got married and had kids, and the husbands went off or back off to war, and often got killed. One of the most popular songs of the '40s was "I'll Be Seeing You." Listen to that sometime. Everyone knew, in those days, exactly what it was about. Listen to it and watch the last scene in the film "Galipoli." That's what everyone knew, when 1950 rolled along. By then we were knee deep in Korea. In '51 I road a train with my dad from Raleigh to Denver. He was going to some philosophy convention. The train was full of soldiers on their way to San Francisco and Korea. They were partying hard.
George Jones sang songs, from start to finish, about real life. I can't post em all, but Youtube is there. Check out "Hell is Open All Night Long." That's fairly early in George's career. Tammy introduces George singing "The Grand Tour" in one of the youtube versions available. That is, that song, so hard that I can't hardly imagine being able to sing it without choking up on those searing last lines, is not about George and Tammy. Then comes George and Tammy. Incredible duets, and a doomed love story lived out in front of the world. Read "The Three of Us" by Georgette Jones.
Then there are the wry songs, another level of sadness, mixed with acceptance. "The King Is Gone (and So Are You)." "Last night I broke the seal on a Jim Beam decanter that looks like Elvis." That's enough to spend the morning on. An elegy for the passing of Elvis (another flaming star, another massive irony in the flesh, go read Sheila O'Malley's terrific pense on Elvis sometime, the blog link's at the top of my links below). In the third verse, Elvis gives the singer advice about picking women, as does Fred Flintstone. Reckon Tony Scott listened to that song? Or Quintin Tarantino? And Jesus H. Christ, Tony Scott jumped off a bridge last summer. "The King is Gone" might get you through a night where the bridge beckons.
What happened to country was, the people who knew what life was when the lessons were the '30s, '40s and '50s got older and older, and life was a different story (somewhat) by the time Garth Brooks showed up. Nobody wanted to remember Vietnam any more. The kids wanted to get to town and make money. American Idol made you think that's where "stars" came from, and Carrie Underwood showed up, and somebody told her what to sing next. And Mr. Romney divided us all into winners and losers.
George exasperated his "handlers." There are bad stories about his recording sessions, even the great ones, that nobody should be telling on him. But to his audience, he spoke the truth, and he died essentially "on tour," between gigs that were booked on out into November of this year. And this is like NASCAR too, the old mean NASCAR, which pretty much ended with Dale squished against the wall in the last turn of Daytona.
Libby said we've listened to George our whole marriage you know. Then she went and looked for a picture of our Anna, a little kid of 6 or something, in a swing in the back yard, with headphones on, listening Libby was sure to a cassette of George. We didn't find it. Anna is graduating from East Carolina in a couple of weeks, in her early '30s, married. We've been married since '84, and met playing music at a party right after I'd walked away from life on the road with the Red Clay Ramblers. One time, back stage in Raleigh, a pretty teenaged fiddler and singer named Allison Krause put her feet up on Libby's guitar case. When I got home from that gig I called a friend of mine who ran a record label at the time. I thought I'd "discovered" somebody. "She's taken," he laughed. "New Country?" Like the fog it had put it's little cats feet up on Libby's guitar case, and moved on to Nashville.
What I like about that link to George singing "I'm Not Ready Yet" is, it's what it's like to be in a band, on stage. He forgets a line towards the end. He and the steel player exchange a knowing glance about a little figure the steel player has just played. And later, during that spoken part, that steel player is so subtle and tasteful it makes me cry almost. That's one of the things I love to do in a band--just do little enhancing things that make the whole better. The subtlety of that performance, of all the players and certainly of George himself, it's breathtaking, and probably lost on ninety-nine percent of the audience. Or at least they don't know why they're affected, why they react. It's in the moment, the roar of the engines going past.
Who's gonna fill their shoes, indeed.