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Old Possum’s Book of Practical Duets

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. 

5 Comments (Open | Close)

5 Comments To "Old Possum’s Book of Practical Duets"

#1 Comment By Ray S. On April 26, 2013 @ 8:33 pm

The greatest ever would be an interesting debate. Jones would be awfully high. Still,I can’t help but think that honor probably goes to Hank Williams Sr,with perhaps Johnny Cash No.2. A top ten would probably also include Willie Nelson,Patsy Cline,George Strait,Merle Haggard,Jones,Jimmy Rodgers,Waylon Jennings,and Jim Reeves.

#2 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 28, 2013 @ 6:47 pm

I have been thinking about this article since appeared on Friday. I have a deep appreciateion for country music. Whenever, I get in country music luvin’ mooline, Tammy d. The first artists that come to mind are Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Garth Brooks . . . I guess I could keep going — a rather longer first come to mind list, Conway Twitty.

We may wince at the raw lives of country music musicians relationships between the sexes and as the tale end of a Coal Miner’s Daughter leaves my idiot box screen, I have this thought,

The drama of country music musicians unlike the drama of other artists is the very real pressure they experience to make the relationships work. Rooted in Bible and Ol’ Time traditions of marriage, family, loyalty country is the expectation from their fan base that marriage is for better or worse.

No other art form has that dynamic played out so viscerally in public. That’s what we expect and that is what we get. That pressure to make the marriage work, in all of it’s torrent and torment, joy, and hysteria, passion and lonliness.

Appreciated the tribute though I am unfamiliar with him, but I bet I would know his songs.

#3 Comment By Flashman On April 29, 2013 @ 1:42 pm

Hank, Sr., always sounds as if he belongs to a different time to me; more like Jimmie Rodgers than the country stars that began to rise in the ’50s on. Like Buddy Holly (or, to mix fields, Lincoln or JFK), it’s impossible to imagine what his legacy would be if he’d lived.

#4 Comment By Maggie Norris On April 29, 2013 @ 3:25 pm

While we’re talking about George and Tammy’s exquisitely poignant duets, I have to mention my own favorite, “Golden Ring.” In a traditional 3-verse ballad structure and perfect harmony, they tell of a poor couple whose marriage begins in hope when they find a “golden ring with one tiny little stone” in a pawn shop and ends in sadness and anger with the ring flung on the floor as they part. “By itself it’s just a cold metallic thing. Only love can make a golden wedding ring.”

#5 Comment By Tammy Mclaine On June 2, 2013 @ 3:56 pm

George and Tammy,were two of the best.I just wish that she Tammy could have hung in there with Jones cause he did truly love her.I mean he walked right in her home where her husband was abusing her and mistreating her.and Jones took her right out of there and married her like he told her husband Don.and Jones done just that.but this George Richey,he was a joke,look at all he done to Tammy,and she wasn’t dead two weeks til he married that tramp Sheila,who acted like Tammy’s friend.and her and George Richey took everything from Tammy’s girls,left them with nothing of their Mothers.but Richey is gone now,but his ex- Dallas cheerleader better remember what goes around comes around.remember Tatumn.your living the life on Tammy Wynette’s girls money that she left,and your dirty parents stoled it.so what they done,your Dad’s gone but one day it will come back to haunt your Mom,I hope she can’t sleep for what her and your Dad done to Tammy and her kids.everyone knows he killed Tammy with all the drugs he was giving her.