Today perhaps the greatest country singer of all—though Willie, Hank Sr., and Johnny Cash are all part of the discussion—passed on. George Jones, the “Possum” has no-showed his last show, recorded his last song, drawn his last breath. The world of country music and American culture as a whole is poorer for his loss, but far richer for having had him around for as long as it did.
Many of the obituaries and appreciations that have appeared in the immediate wake of his death have focused on his reputation—the wildness, the boozing, the cocaine, the self-destruction. The stories are legendary, such as the one where Tammy Wynette took his car keys from him one night so that he wouldn’t drive to the bar—so he took a riding lawn mower instead. While these stories are certainly picturesque and hilarious on the surface, the correlation between substance abuse and personal turmoil, in his case and that of countless other legendary musicians from all genres, is real. Just like the story of Jones coming home liquored up one night and chasing Wynette around the house with a loaded 30/30 rifle, a lurid moment in a marriage that was as horrible a union as their duets were beautiful.
In a way, it is entirely appropriate that George and Tammy had the marriage they did—tumultuous, full of what the kids today euphemistically call “drama.” There is a strong case to be made that their duets, primarily recorded from 1971-1980 (most of them while they were still married) were the signature country records of the 1970s. Their voices went together as seamlessly as another troubled couple with a history of brutality, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Yet unlike the R&B artists, the collaborations between Jones and Wynette spoke volumes about the pressures experienced by their audience.
In writing about the duets, I don’t mean to shortchange Jones’ considerable oeuvre as a solo artist—I couldn’t do that if I wanted to. In a career with few missteps, though, his work with Wynette stands as a pinnacle of achievement, the likes of which we will never see again, because of changes in the music industry, its marketing strategies, and the palate of the public shaped by them.
Consider what the 1970s were like for white working-class families in rural and suburban America. The purchasing power of the dollar had peaked, and circumstances dictated that the halcyon days of the single-paycheck family with the mother staying home to raise the kids and run the house were long gone. The reality was that the so-called traditional family model was fraying, layer by layer, and yet there was a longing in the marketplace for deliberately traditional music (especially given the turbulence of the Vietnam War and bygone notions of social cohesion being undermined by the hippies and the “me generation”). Despite the violence of their marriage, George Jones and Tammy Wynette produced music that hearkened back to a bygone time even as the subtext—in their lives and, increasingly, those of their fans—said that time was long gone and never coming back.
From the plaintive lament of “Southern California” to the very melodic, very real dysfunction of “Two Story House”, the George and Tammy duets documented a heartbreak that was only hinted at in their solo work (such as “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”, “The Grand Tour”, and the perfectly-pitched “She Thinks I Still Care”). The idea of Tammy’s character in the former wasting her best years as a barmaid a continent away from her true love—nothing short of epic. And the “Two Story House” being so bereft of love—all too true, given what was happening in so many breaking homes around the time that song was a hit.
It’s notable that Jones and Wynette were both married multiple times. I am reminded of an aunt who was a huge George Jones fan, who married five or six times herself, yet every Sunday morning, blasted the most soporific gospel music ever recorded from her hi-fi. I am also reminded of my father, who played a George Jones 8-track on what seemed like endless loop as he drove us back east, after his Southern California divorce from my mother. Real music for real people—that’s what George Jones produced. Music for people who struggled for what they had, and who knew, even as they exhausted themselves, that the triumph would be ephemeral but the sacrifice would be eternal.
A.G. Gancarski writes from Jacksonville, Florida.