Kennedy Center Honors: Singing George Jones's Praises

georgeGeorge Jones, all these tender years later. (Peyton Hoge FTWP)

Whether or not you think George Jones is "the greatest voice to ever sing country music," as Garth Brooks told The Post last week, you'll almost certainly agree that the Possum belongs on country's Mount Rushmore.

To put it simply: The guy could-flat out sing.

He was a fine songwriter, when he chose to scratch that itch. But it was all about his incredible, iconic voice, as Jones recorded some of the greatest vocal performances not only in his own genre, but popular music period.

When I was in Nashville last month to interview George for the big Kennedy Center Honors package running in this Sunday's Style & Arts, I began asking singers and producers about his voice, then continued working the phones (and e-mail) once I returned to Washington.

My story should be online later today, along with profiles of the rest of the Kennedy Center Honors recipients, including, of course, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey, who got the bonus-quote treatment on Post Rock yesterday.

(Update: Here's a link to the piece on George.)

Meanwhile, here are some comments about George that didn't make it into my piece.

Vince Gill, Country Music Hall of Famer: "What's beautiful about George's singing is, if you get the opportunity to speak to him, you'll hear in the way that he speaks that it's the same kind of cadence, same kind of rhythm of the way he sings. That's what makes him so gifted. It's unaffected. It's very, very natural. I really study that in people that are great singers. If you don't talk like you sing, then you're not as honest as maybe you should be.

"You can't define the ache that's in George's voice. It's just something inherently him. It doesn't need definition. It doesn't need clarification. It doesn't need a lot of things. You just sit back and appreciate it. It's just greatness.

"Most people, when they think of soul, they think of black music. Couldn't be further from the truth. Soul doesn't just come from Motown. It comes from the mountains and all kinds of places. It comes from what your heart allows you to do. People are drawn to the soulfulness of the way George sings. It doesn't equate that twangy beer-drinkin' and cheatin' songs would be thought of as soulful, but that's why these great soul singers would name George Jones as one of the great soul singers ever."

Bettye LaVette, an acclaimed R&B singer who recently recorded "Choices," a Jones song from 1999: "This is what I like about George Jones: He chooses great songs, with powerful lyrics, mostly that will make me cry. He doesn't play on them, he doesn't produce them and, mostly, he doesn't write them. He just sings the hell out of them. I feel a definite kinship with him. And I don't feel that way about singers in general."

Dolly Parton, Country Music Hall of Famer: "Anyone who knows or cares anything about real country music will agree that George Jones is the voice of it. I believe every word and every emotion that comes out of his heart and his mouth. He has always been a favorite of mine."

Jeffrey Steele, Nashville songwriter and producer ("What Hurts the Most," "The Cowboy in Me," "My Wish"), "Nashville Star" judge and recording artist who has cut "I Always Get Lucky With You," a No. 1 hit for Jones in 1983:

"George and Merle Haggard are the two greatest singers of all-time. There's other guys in there, where you go: 'Oh, what about him?' Johnny Cash certainly. But Merle and George are the most distinctive and iconic singers in the history of country music. I love the way they deliver a song so much. I have trouble with the one and the two; it depends on what song they're singing.

"What George does is, he cries. And he doesn't do it the way you're supposed to do it. He'd do these cries, and they weren't even in key necessarily. But with the breaks in his voice, how he delivered the words, how me made these round sounds in the consonants -- you talk about it technically, but he was just singing the way he sang. That's the real definition of style. As soon as you hear it, you know it's George.

"And everybody copied it. But if he was singing like that today, they'd put him in a room and say: 'You can't sing like that. You can't do that break; you're never going to get anywhere today.' Thank God things worked out the way they did."

Jamey Johnson, a young country traditionalist with a dark heart: "His voice is the voice of your own spirit. If your spirit could jump out and have its own voice and sing a country song to you, it'd sound like George Jones. He feels everything for you. The lines that you're not really sure what they mean, he'll teach you just by the impression he gives you. You don't even have to speak English to understand a George Jones song. He'll put it on you and you'll really feel it."

(Much more after the jump, including comments from George Strait, Keith Richards and Kid Rock, plus a bonus story from Mel Tillis about the Possum's fighting-drunk days.)

Buddy Cannon, a veteran Nashville producer and songwriter (Kenny Chesney, Reba McEntire, Sammy Kershaw, Ashton Shepherd, Mel Tillis) who has recorded multiple times with Jones:

"There are other great singers. But without a doubt, you place George at the very top. He's the greatest natural singer I've ever worked with. What I learned from working with him is that he has these little mannerisms. You can watch him when he's doing a vocal, and if he's getting ready to really bear down and give you something to make your skin crawl, he puts his hand just below his belt line. It's just a reflex. Every time you see that hand go to that spot, he's getting ready to do something spectacular. When the feeling comes over him, it's like a great guitar player -- Grady Martin or somebody -- playing one of those great licks. It's like an electrical shock through his body and it comes out through his voice. It's like a gift from God."

George Strait, Country Music Hall of Famer: "George Jones was one of the biggest influences on my career, if not the biggest. Very few people could sing with as much feeling and soul as George. I feel so fortunate to be able to call him a friend. I would sing so many of his songs back in the honky-tonks and always tried to sing them like him. I would like to think that maybe just a small bit might have stuck with me and know that his influence was part of the reason for my success. George is the true king and will always be one of my heroes."

Ronnie Dunn, of Brooks & Dunn: "His voice is extremely bluesy. I can remember when my dad first heard him in the '50s. My dad was a wannabe country singer, and he came home and said: 'I'm not sure if I like that guy's voice or not. I've never heard anything like that.' Of course, we all grew up to love it. It became a classic. He's right up there at the top."

Keith Richards, Rolling Stones rapscallion and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who has collaborated with Jones in the studio: "George Jones is a national treasure and should be treated accordingly. A unique style so often emulated even inadvertently."

Tim McGraw, country star: "The reason I wanted to sing country music was because of hearing guys like George. Especially him. He's truly a national treasure. He interprets the music so well and is able to reach inside somebody to tell them how they feel."

Aaron Neville, the great New Orleans soul singer who has covered "The Grand Tour," a hit for Jones in 1974: "To me, George is the godfather of country music. His artistry, vision and ability to tell a story through his songs has always made me feel like I was right there in his moment."

Eric Church, country singer: "George's voice is equal parts pain and home. We joke about it, but he's really a guy who could sing the phone book and probably have 25 No. 1s out of it. It's just that voice. To me, he's the best voice that's ever been in country music and probably ever will be. My favorite record is 'Yesterday's Wine,' a Haggard-Jones record. Best record of all-time. The great thing about that is, it's just two guys that were drinking and smoking and didn't think at all about what they were doing. They just let their talent rise to the top. It's brilliant."

Solomon Burke, soul great and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer: "George Jones! Those songs are amazing. And although there is only one George Jones -- and really, who would want to hear anyone else sing his songs? -- you can get lucky every time you ... sing or record one of them. I have been blessed several times. He's more than a legend. He is an American icon, and I am a pure George Jones fan."

Chuck Wicks, country singer: "You hear that sense of realness. When you hear George Jones sing, you can tell he's telling the truth. He's a guy you don't have to listen to a lot to figure out. You just listen once and you get it."

Kid Rock, Detroit rap-rock singer who sometimes flirts with country: "George is up there with Johnny and Hank for sure. I love all his stuff. His voice is ... [Pause.] I'm at a loss for words, which doesn't happen very often. It's such a powerful voice. It's a country voice, but he has such a great blues range, the way he bends all those notes. In a twisted way, it's almost like a Mary J. Blige thing, but with this honking horn behind it. There's real pain."

Luke Bryan, country singer: "You hear him, and you know it's George Jones. He has that originality in the way he swoops his voice, his whole approach to singing. He's so undeniable. The quintessential country emotion is there, based on the way he's lived. Big, big hero of mine. I passed him once, when he was going to a doctor's office and I was coming from an allergist. But I couldn't do it. I had an opportunity to meet my hero, but I didn't do it."

Raul Malo, country singer: "In the history of country music, I don't think there has ever been a more influential singer than George Jones.'He Stopped Loving Her Today' is one of the greatest performances of all time."

Troy Gentry, of Montgomery Gentry: "I've been listening to George Jones for as long as I can remember. He was one of those guys that my dad was always playing and wound up being a huge influence when I decided to start singing and making music."

Eddie Montgomery, of Montgomery Gentry: "George Jones man, he is and has always been such a character. He is such a great artist, and a great singer. What really impresses me about him most though is that he's always lived by his own set of rules."

Mel Tillis, Country Music Hall of Famer: "George is one of the greatest country singers ever. I hear a lot of Roy Acuff in his voice. Roy was everybody's favorite. He could sing them songs to make you cry. George is like that."

Tillis, on an offstage run-in with his famously feisty friend: "We were out in Colorado Springs, back in the late '50s. Patsy Cline was on the show, Jimmy Newman, Grandpa Jones, George Jones and me. After the show, we went out to a place called the Palomino and had a big time. We were in the car after that. I was in the front seat and George was in back of me. He'd had a few drinks. He was jabbering about this, jabbering about that, then punched me on the back. I said: 'What the hell's the matter with you?' He took a swing at me. He had just had that arm out of a cast. I grabbed that arm, and he jerked it and he broke it again. Next morning, he knocked on my door. 'I'm sorry, man. I don't know what I was doing. I had too much to drink.' [Laughs.] But I love old George. We're the best of friends."

By J. Freedom du Lac |  December 5, 2008; 3:13 PM ET Kennedy Center Honors , Legends
Previous: Friday Fall-ies: The NWRA | Next: Don't Go There: Rules Of The Road Vol. 6


Please email us to report offensive comments.

I love George Jones, but I still think Vern Gosdin has him beat on the voice part.
Also, take a listen to the ORIGINAL recordings of Tennessee Whiskey and Field of Stone by David Allan Coe. Some of those early DAC recordings. What a voice that guy had.

Posted by: TOMHERE | December 7, 2008 9:05 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company