The Possum has passed. On April 26 the inimitable voice that graced the honkytonks and concert halls of country music since the 1950s was silenced, and the tributes have understandably poured in. Among the more moving was Russell Moore’s encomium (George Jones: Troubadour of the Christ-Haunted Bible Belt) rightly contending that George Jones was no hypocrite. As far as I can tell, George never claimed to be anything other than what he was, and his personal failings were often on display for all the world to see.
But still there was the voice. George Jones was blessed, or perhaps cursed, with a voice that could wring every last bit of emotion from a set of lyrics without sounding forced or artificial. The voice also could evoke a vast emotional range, shifting from impish (“White Lightning”) to anguished (“Things Have Gone to Pieces”) to tender (“Walk Through This World With Me”) as the set list progressed.
I came to country music later in life. When I was growing up in the 1960s I didn’t get it. I thought that authenticity was the order of the day, and the country music of that time—with the Nudie suits, the cow-horned Cadillacs, and the polished uptown Nashville sound pioneered by guitarist/producer Chet Atkins at RCA—seemed a bit contrived. Of course, in retrospect the countercultural conformity of nonconformity endemic to that period seems pretty contrived as well.
Things changed when I moved to Nashville to do my graduate work. I couldn’t afford a Vanderbilt University parking sticker so I usually parked my car over on Music Row and walked the four blocks or so past recording studios and music publishers to campus. I also met some people in the music industry. As my ear developed I especially gravitated toward three voices that for me defined country music at its best—Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and George Jones.
All three came from the heartland of America—Jones from Texas, Cash from Arkansas, and Haggard from California but with deep roots in dust-bowl Oklahoma—and the recorded work all three spoke to the real-life struggles of working-class Americans. All three had run-ins with the law and substance-abuse problems.
All three had an instantly recognizable sound. Haggard, the most musically sophisticated of the three, had an interest in the C&W equivalent of jazz (Western Swing) and pioneered the “Bakersfield sound” with guitarist Roy Nichols. Cash’s classic early recordings featured his trademark baritone and the “boom-chicka” style of guitarist Luther Perkins, an idiosyncratic fellow with the unfortunate (and, in this case, fatal) habit of smoking in bed. But with Jones, who always had good bands, it was the voice.
Haggard and Cash are known not only as singers but also as stellar songwriters. Here we immediately think of Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line,” and Haggard’s “Swinging Doors,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and “Workin’ Man Blues”—all important pages in the country-music songbook. To be sure, Jones wrote a lot of songs himself, but he was best known for his interpretations of songs written by others. Again, it was the voice.
Johnny Cash died in 2003. George Jones passed away last week. Now only Merle Haggard is left.
In his later years Jones complained that country music had changed and that there was little room for traditional country music like his own. He was right, and the reasons for this have to do with a heady mix of economic, cultural, and religious factors.
Traditional country artists like Jones were trying to, you guessed it, make money. That type of music was geared to a market demographic sociologically rooted in the experiences of the rural South, the Great Depression, the northern migrations to work in the auto factories, and the challenges of the Dust Bowl migrations. That is to say, there was a social/economic basis for what they were doing. The schtick (Nudie suits, Cadillacs, etc.) was geared to that demographic. But that historical moment has passed, though it has left behind some cultural artifacts that are pretty compelling. Thus more recently it has been a challenge for gifted younger performers to make much money doing forms of country music that are deeply rooted in what is now, culturally speaking, the distant past.
With this change in demographic has come a shift, to build on Ken Myers’ argument in his seminal analysis of popular culture (All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes Christians & Popular Culture [Crossway, 1989]), from a popular cultural form deeply rooted in the mores of folk culture to a popular cultural form that is rootless, self-referential, formulaic, and shallow. Can you say Shania Twain, or Taylor Swift, or Keith Urban?
And with this shift has come a loss of moral compass. What gave the older country music (and blues, which was equally rooted in folk culture) its depth was its moral and religious sensibility. When Johnny Cash sang that he had “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” both the singer and the audience knew that was wrong. When George Jones’ sometime wife Tammy Wynette sang about “D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” the crack in her voice bore powerful witness that the breakup of a family is a tragedy for all involved. To be sure, country artists frequently worked the other side of the fence, but nobody doubted that the fence was still there. That has changed, and the music has suffered for it.
Interestingly, it is Johnny Cash—the most overtly religious by far of the three singers—who remained artistically vital until the end of his life. The Rick Rubin-produced “American Recordings,” done during the last decade of Cash’s life, are suffused with a moral (“Delia’s Gone”), distinctively Christian (“I Corinthians 15:55”) and even apocalyptic (“The Man Comes Around”) sensibility. They are compelling in ways that will, I think, stand the test of time.
The voice is gone, but thankfully we still have the recordings of George Jones. As George himself sang about the passing generation of country-music singers, “who’s gonna fill their shoes?” Who indeed!