Saunders: Troubador George Jones played heartstrings of sorrow

bsaunders@newsobserver.comApril 28, 2013 

There are three ways to tell if a man is dead:

• Put a stethoscope to his chest and listen.

• Place a mirror in front of his mouth and see if it fogs up.

• Play George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and see if tears begin to flow.

George “Possum” Jones died last week, and for many people, so did the last living link to real country music. Me? I think we’re all right as long as Merle and Willie are still plucking around.

Jocelyn Neal, director of the Center for the Study of the American South and a big country music fan, said, “He was a phenomenal singer, and I think he is deservedly regarded as one of the greatest.”

Then, sounding like the learned scholar she is – Neal is an associate music professor at UNC – she said “Country music gets a lot of its relevance from the aggregate of a bunch of different performers.” (Who but a professor could talk about George Jones and say “aggregate”?)

“They bring something different to the table, and collectively that represents a lot of what people find so compelling about it,” she continued.

If you want to start a bar brawl, ask drinkin’ country music fans who’s better – Hank Williams Sr. or George. For anyone who has never heard Lefty Frizzell and Webb Pierce, those are the only two names worth considering.

Neal, who has written a whole lot of books and papers about country music and its pioneers, didn’t wade into those waters. “I don’t think I can really rank them,” she said. “They’re different. Hank Williams wrote his own songs and George Jones ... was a singer.”

Not just a singer, but a troubadour in the finest sense of that word – just like James Taylor, with whom he recorded “Bartender Blues.”

I passed up a chance to see Possum at the N.C. State Fair in 2011, content to listen to my albums, CDs and cassettes – yep, cassettes – lest the aging star sully my memories of him with a subpar performance.

Those are the same reasons I passed up chances to see James Brown and Ray Charles late in their careers. To my chagrin, no one I know came away from any of those shows disappointed.

As Professor Neal said, Jones didn’t write songs, at least not his biggest hits, but he could sure sing the stuffing out of them.

“He Stopped Loving Her Today” is considered by many to be the purest and greatest country song ever sung. This may seem blasphemous, but I don’t even consider it to be Possum’s greatest.

Listen to him sing “The Door” and see if your heartstrings aren’t pulled out of their sockets. Any song in which the very first line is “I’ve heard the sound of my dear ol’ mama crying” – and gets sadder from there – is a certified heart-tugger. Man, could he sing about honky tonk angels and honky tonk prisons.

Then, there’s “These Days, I Barely Get By,” “A Picture of Me Without You,” “The Grand Tour” and “Still Doin’ Time,” which contains this:

“When you’re caught cheatin’ twice
it’s 20 to life
in a place where the sun never shines.
And when I wake up you know tomorrow’s gonna find me
still doin’ time.”

If medications come with warning labels, there is no reason in the world “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “The Door” shouldn’t come with them, too:

The surgeon general warns: Don’t drink brown liquor or handle anything with a sharp point while listening to these songs.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or

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