Sunday, May 5, 2013

Track of the Week: George Jones, "The Race is On"

With the recent passing of George Jones, I've been listening to a lot of his music, and pondering the contradictions of country music.  More than any other genre of American music, country wraps itself in the flag, and is most obsessed with tradition.  George Jones' passing is, in many respects, the passing of the soul of traditional country music, which gets paid much lip service in Nashville.  There was a big funeral for him at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, in the very city that had largely rejected him and old school country music for the past three decades.  A personage as respectable as former first lady Laura Bush eulogized a man infamous for his craven drunkness, reckless behavior, and rank unprofessionalism.  (Then again, perhaps Laura saw something of her husband in him.)  Jones was the type of guy who failed to appear at so many concerts that he earned the name "No Show," and who got so desperate for a drink after his wife hid the car keys that he absconded with a riding lawn mower to get his hands on some liquor.

That contrast between Jones' dirty life and glossy funeral had me thinking about my own crooked road to loving country music.  I grew up surrounded by country music in rural Nebraska, but I couldn't stand the warmed-over, glossy crap purveyed by the likes of Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood.  Rejecting the music, like my rejections of Catholicism, and political conservatism, was empowering form of rebellion against a place that had always made me an outsider.  At the end of my high school years, however, I started listening to Johnny Cash, and slowly developed a love of the keepers of the honky tonk flame: Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Waylon Jennings, and George Jones.  I loved the fact that many of these figures, for all the aura of tradition around them, were hell-bent, self-destructive rebels.  Merle Haggard spent time in prison, Cash kicked out the lights at the Opry (among many, many indiscretions), and Hank Williams died in the back of a car at age 29.

Unlike the rockers responsible for similar exploits, Jones and his country music ilk sang about the pain and guilt associated with such actions.  It wasn't just reckless, devil-may-care fun, there were consequences, just as in life.  Like Otis Redding, George Jones had a special kind of voice, one capable of getting that pain and regret across to his listeners.  It had a kind of lilting, Appalachian twang to it, despite his origins in East Texas, where the local accent is much less euphonious.  As much as he tried to destroy himself, Jones never managed to lose the power of his vocal instrument.

Even though he may well be the master of the tear in your beer honky tonk ballad, my favorite Jones tune is "The Race is On."  It is a deceptively up-tempo number, complete with a fantastically reverb-laden country-fried guitar solo in the middle.  He might sound peppy, but the song uses horse racing as a metaphor for heartbreak.  It's almost as if he's singing such a catchy tune to get his mind off of the wounds on his soul.  RIP, Possum, you'll be missed.

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