Formative-album replay: The Best of George Jones, Vol. 1: Hardcore Honkytonk. I’ve said before that if there’s a single key that has unlocked my appreciation of genres I once resisted, and thereby broadened my musical tastes, it has been learning to love, or at least tolerate, vocal sounds and styles I didn’t think I liked. Years ago it was the trained classical voice, which opened me up to opera and art songs; more recently it was Joni Mitchell, who followed a long line of acquired vocal tastes—Dylan, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Randy Newman—into my pantheon of favorites, alongside other greats I had to teach myself to appreciate (Donald Fagen, Mick Jagger, Richard Thompson, Geddy Lee).
Another big hurdle I’m glad I got over: country. My resistance—like that of many, I suspect—to the twang and diction of country vocalists, as well as to the ostensibly corny harmonies and heart-on-sleeve lyrics, stands in for a whole regime of taste and class anxiety. But at the end of the day it's music, some of it is as great as any in any genre you can name; it just takes open ears to hear it (hands on an instrument doesn't hurt either). I’m not sure what my gateway was, possibly a combination of k.d. lang, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Gram Parsons, Lyle Lovett, Dolly Parton—a typical résumé for non-country fans. The reverence Elvis Costello expressed for the form, to the point of recording an all-too-respectable record of country covers with Billy Sherrill in Nashville, opened my mind to the idea that the genre might be worth another listen beyond these rock tourist faves.
The hushed reverence with which Costello and others spoke of George Jones (to the point of writing a song for and recording it with him) eventually led me to this now out-of-print collection of early cuts. It was in many ways an ideal introduction to a singer I now consider one of, if not the, greatest ever to open his mouth. For one thing, the sound and songcraft on this collection of tunes from the early ’60s is resolutely old-school, four-square country, all shuffles and steel and sad-sack barfly bluster; this was all from the era before the countrypolitan Sherrill, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” the duets and drunken drama with Tammy Wynette, an era which has the compensation of making the most of Jones's husky lower register.
And as it turns out, the boxy shapes of these early songs are ideal echo chambers for the distinctive rise and fall of Jones’s extraordinarily tender and nuanced instrument. If I was looking for a demonstration that country singing, far from being stoically macho or musically simplistic, could be as ornamented as a baroque partita, as melismatic as Aretha Franklin, here was Jones, rappelling virtuosically with aplomb up and down the phrases of songs good, bad, and indifferent (there are some clunkers on here, as there are throughout his checkered career). Though he attributed his penchant for melisma to the influence of fellow Texan Lefty Frizzell, Jones' artistry is on a whole nother level. Listen to how many notes he wrings from the words “before” and from the words of the title in the song below; what impresses is not just the technical dexterity but the voluptuous musicality, which, as with any great singer, from Nusrat to Sinatra, has the interpretive power of a great instrumentalist:
Indeed, I mean no shade on the rest of country music when I say that extended exposure to Jones’s genius both makes a decisive case for the form’s huge expressive potential and spoils me for any artist whose instrument is less exquisitely attuned. It’s hard to do much better for a description than James Taylor’s insight that Jones “sounds like a steel guitar. It’s the way he blends notes, the way he comes up to them and comes off them, the way he crescendos and decrescendos. The dynamic of it is very tight and really controlled—it’s like carving with the voice.” Carving with the most delicate of knives, that is, and cutting through a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast for the ears.