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More on the Possum

[ 75 ] April 29, 2013 |

I know we coffee-drinking blue-state elitists are not supposed to care about George Jones (about Teachout’s uncharacteristic cliched falsehood, I note only that the kind of Nashville country urban music aficionados disdain generally has more in common musically with Train than George Jones), but nonetheless some additional discussions:

  • Since it isn’t mentioned even in the long Pareles obit, I think it should be acknowledged that Jones wasn’t just self- but other-destructive.   Like a very different fellow musical genius born two years later, Jones was a serial domestic abuser.   As Robert Christgau wrote in fine Voice essay — reprinted in Grown Up All Wrong but apparently not online — “I defy anyone reading Allen’s book to keep track of how many women get hit — after a while the brutality has a numbing effect.  Robert Plant is Alan Alda by comparison.  Frank Sinatra is Elie Wiesel.”
  • As was discussed in Erik’s thread, Jones lacks the truly comprehensive overview an artist of his immense stature deserves.   Part of this is the hits-plus-filler Nashville albums ethos that of the modern country giants only Willie Nelson (not on Jones’s planet as a singer, although like his friend Dylan at his best he does a great deal with what he wasn’t given) and Rubin-era Cash escaped.  But all of his contemporaneous titans — Nelson, Cash, and Haggard — have exceptional multi-disc best-ofs, as do his forerunners Lefty and Hank.   My go-to has been a pretty good Time-Life box I got a really cheap used copy of.   The sound is very good and while there’s a little less honky-tonk and a little more late career than one might prefer, even the latter has its charms; seeing how he can make even the corniest assembly-line Nashville product listenable is a tribute to his greatness in its own way.   Alas, it seems out of print and needless to say the used copies have dried up.   So the Columbia best-of is probably the best available collection for now.
  • I conclude with this single paragraph from the Pareles obit: “In 1966, Mr. Jones tried to start a country theme park in Vidor, the East Texas suburb where he lived. Called the George Jones Rhythm Ranch, it was the first of many shaky business ventures. Mr. Jones gave only one performance. After singing, he disappeared for a month, rambling across Texas. His drinking had gotten worse. At one point his wife hid the keys to all his cars, so he drove his lawn mower into Beaumont to a liquor store — an incident he would later commemorate in a song and in music videos. They were divorced not long afterward.”

Comments (75)

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  1. rea says:

    How on earth did he make it to 81? Shouldn’t he have died young like Joplin, Hendrix and Schubert?

    • Richard says:

      I would quibble with the contention that only Willie and Rubin-era Cash escaped the hits plus filler ethos of commercial country music. Cash had numerous themed albums decades before he hooked up with Rubin (Ride This Train, Bitter Tears, the two live prison albums). And Waylon Jenning’s Honky Tonk Heroes record, a great album with almost all the songs composed by a then unknown Billie Joe Shaver, was solid from beginning to end and hugely influential since Waylon had complete artistic control over it and since it was the first country album other than Cash to get a sizeable urban, hipster audience (Willie had earlier attempts but Phases & Stages, as great as it was, was a commercial failure). And Waylon’s next half dozen albums were great records with no filler at all. And Merle, of course, had numerous themed albums (the tributes to Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills among others).

      The reason there is no comprehensive George Jones box set has less to do with the erratic nature of almost all Jones albums but the fact that he recorded for so many labels and that licensing issues with some of the labels, particularly Starday, make a comprehensive box set very hard to do

      And, by the way, Willie turns 80 tomorrow.

      • Erik Loomis says:

        There are very few good Cash albums prior to the Rubin era. Ride This Train is passable, the live prison albums are kind of a different beast than original studio material, but most of them are between disposable and offer. Certainly Haggard had some good albums and a couple of great albums and a lot of filler on most of his other albums. Loretta had some good ones, although again it is really hit and miss. Obviously there are exceptions to the general rule, and when you start getting into the real songwriters like Paycheck, some can be really quite outstanding.

        But as a general rule, country musicians, even of the highest class, were putting out way too many albums with 1 good song throughout the 60s and 70s.

        • Richard says:

          I think its generally true that albums by country artists werent as good as they could be but Scott claimed that it was only Rubin-era Cash and Willie who avoided the hits plus filler formula. I think there are ten pre-Rubin Cash albums that aren’t in that formula (how good they are depends on your taste – I love Bitter Tears (all songs about American Indians) and, of course, the massively selling prison albums didn’t adhere to that formula. I dont think Ride This Train is a great record but its certainly not in the hits and filler formula) and Waylon certainly didn’t adhere to that formula either starting with Honky Tonk Heroes. And for the most part, neither did Hag starting with A Different Train.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          I agree with Erik. Not all of Cash’s individual albums were terrible, but compared to comparable figures of the rock era they’re not remotely as good. Same with Haggard. There’s no Sticky Fingers or Revolver or Blood on the Tacks in their discographies, although you could certainly have put one together with their best songs recorded in a given year.

          I don’t consider Waylon an artist nearly on the level with Nelson/Cash/Jones/Hag, frankly.

          • rm says:

            I think I agree with Richard, but I have different questions.

            Which female artists of the classic-country generations (’50s artists through baby boomers, I guess) are on a level with Nelson/Cash/Jones/Haggard? I think that Dolly is, but that the artistry is covered up by the production in too much of her work. I know about some of the other greats, like Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Hazel Dickens, Kitty Wells. Who do I not know about that I should?

            And since this is country, maybe songwriters should be equally canonized, which would elevate Willy’s status and bring Kristofferson into the discussion.

            • Erik Loomis says:

              Cindy Walker, for one. The collection titled “Til the End of Time” is a pretty great 1-disc compilation of her greatest songs, many of which you might recognize from other people’s versions.

              Kristofferson is one of the all-time great songwriters. But there are 2 problems here. First, he can’t sing at all, although that doesn’t bother me so much. Second, he had 2 amazing albums and then an immediate plunge into almost total garbage. Although I think “Shipwrecked in the Eighties” is the best song in the returning Vietnam vet genre.

              • Richard says:

                Cindy is a better songwriter than a singer but I agree with Erik that Til The End of Time is a fine album. Tammy, of course. Melba Montgomery (who did some great duets with George Jones). Jean Shepard, one of my all time favorites.

                On Kris, I agree with Erik that he can’t sing and that his first two records are so much better than anything he has done since that its hard to listen to anything else. But what a songwriting talent. He’s also the first person to bring sensuality to country music. Before For the Good Times and Help Me Make It Through the Night, there simply hadn’t been any country songs about the pleasures of sexual contact.

                Personal story – I saw Kris at the Berkeley Folk Festival in the summer of 1968. This was six months before his first album and before anyone had recorded any of his songs with any success. He was completely unknown to me and everybody in the audience. He came on in the middle of a boring show on a very hot day at the Greek Theater but his first song was Sunday Morning Coming Down and when I heard the “had a beer for breakfast” line, I knew I was hearing a major talent.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              Parton for sure; I should gave listed her among the 4 other titans. Lynn is close, Cline obviously has a shorter book but it’s extremely high-quality.

          • Richard says:

            We just disagree about Waylon. But even if we disagree about his talent, there is no doubt that Waylon was a big country star (selling more than Haggard during the 70s and 80s) and that Honky Tonk Heroes wasn’t a hits and filler album

            I agree with you that most country artists didn’t adopt the “album as a work of art” ethos while most rock musicians did. And I’m not making the argument that Cash or Haggard had an album of the landmark status of Revolver. But I certainly believe that Cash, decades before Rubin, abandoned the hits and filler formula for many of his albums and that Haggard basically abandoned that convention starting with A Different Train.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              Fair enough. It’s not just the hits-plus-filler format but the general lack of quality control I was getting at; as with rock n roll before the mid-60s, it remained a singles game for a long time.

              • Richard says:

                No disagreement there.

                My love for Waylon goes back to 1973 when Honky Tonk Heroes just came out. I was working as a record clerk and the country music and blues buyer at the best and biggest record store in the country, Tower Records on the Sunset Strip. RCA was trying to sell him to the hipster, hippie crowd and booked him at the Troubador and got tickets for me and some friends to go see him. I was about ten feet away from the stage and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Just mesmerizing (and before the excessive cocaine use made him an occasional mess on stage)

                • Richard says:

                  And one thing about Jones recordings. Although we lack a good four CD box set like the ones for Willie, Waylon, Loretta, Tammy and most other stars, you can get, through the amazing Bear Family in Germany, all of George’s United Artists recordings (on a 5 cd set) and all of his Musicor recordings (on two sets totalling 9 cds)

                  There is obviously going to be some reissues in the next few weeks and I would hope for a comprehensive, career spanning four cd set but getting rights to the Starday recordings is always a problem.

          • Erik Loomis says:

            I think the album that comes closest to an exception is Haggard’s I’m a Lonesome Fugitive, although that feels more like a bunch of great songs than a coherent album. I love Waylon’s Dreaming My Dreams, but I wouldn’t call it a titanic masterpiece of an album. And then there’s Willie’s Phases and Stages and Red Headed Stranger, which are at the peak of the country album art form. I should also make a strong statement in favor of Johnny Paycheck’s Slide Off Those Satin Sheets, which has what I think is a top 5 all-time great country song in “I Did the Right Thing.” My love for that album could be a personal thing though.

            • rm says:

              Richard is making a point about album format, and Erik is making a mishmash of points about album format + album unity + artistic greatness. Can’t we all just get along?

        • nixnutz says:

          For my money a bunch of the early solo Dolly Parton albums hold up pretty well, she was still doing two or three a year but her songwriting happened to be up to it for a while.

          As to the Jones best-of situation I have Mercury’s The Definitive 1955-62 and the Razor & Tie collection of the United Arists years, She Thinks I Still Care, and I’m pretty satisfied.

  2. Politics and being a callow youth kept me away from country music when Jones and a lot of others were in their prime, but time has a way of curing that sort of thing. Jones was, almost by definition, not an artist to see live, so his great recordings are how we know him, and how he will endure. I spent the weekend listening to him, and wow. Poor son of a bitch, it was a hard damn life to live, I’m sure.

  3. Tybalt says:

    The Teachout article is wacky fun. The mainstream media ignores country music? Has this guy been near a television in the last 20 years? I guess maybe the New York-based drama critic of the WSJ doesn’t get the chance very often.

    • Richard says:

      Teachout is an interesting case. He’s primarily a jazz and classical music fan. On the jazz side, he’s a former player and the author of a great Armstrong biography and a forthcoming Ellington biography. He writes on drama for the WSJ and on music and other stuff for the Weekly Standard and Commentary. Despite that, his politics, presumably very conservative, dont get in the way of his writing and he has very big ears – appreciating country and many other types of music. One of the critics I always read although often disagreeing with

      • Richard says:

        Forgot to add that he has also written the librettos for a couple operas and a one man play about Armstrong – Satchmo at the Waldorf Astoria – that has gotten great reviews and may be coming to Broadway. He also has a very interesting blog – About Last Night – that is always worth looking at.

    • witless chum says:

      Yeah what the MSM should do? They should create a big, fancy TV drama series set in Nashville and market the hell out of it and its soundtrack. Then complaints like this might look silly.

      It’s really a good show and the music is probably better done than any other similar product I can think of.

      • witless chum says:

        First word should be “Y’know.”

      • pete says:

        Take a bow, T-Bone Burnett, even if he did sleep his way into the gig (his wife is the producer), but I regret to say that much of the music does not hold up that well without the acting. (I bought a bunch of the recent singles as a birthday present and did listen to it.) Even the cute kids’ version of Ho Hey really needed the visuals. But, yeah, I’m hooked on the soap.

      • ChrisTS says:

        Great show. I have been thinking about getting the cd, but Pete’s comment gives me pause. On the other hand, I think many ‘music only’ recordings seem lackluster as compared with a performance. One thinks, “Why did I think this was so great when I watched it being performed?”

        • pete says:

          Preview them on iThing or Amawhoosit. Clare Bowen & Sam Palladino (the young pair) hold up best for me, while Connie Britton is an excellent actress. Hayden Panettiere is a question of taste, I guess, and I don’t like the material much. But they cherrypicked for the CD, so that’s a plus.

  4. jake the snake says:

    George “no-show” Jones was rarely a no-show at the bars or liquor stores. I have remarked elsewhere that a bet of “Possum” making
    it to 81 would have definitely been the “over.”
    Keith Richard is another that has beaten the odds so far.

  5. Joshua Brown says:

    Vidor? Vidor was a notorious sundown town, a hotbed of racism. In the 90′s, HUD tried to integrate public housing there, and the African-American families were more-or-less run out of town. And its current demographics are just about what you’d expect given its past.

    Looking at Wikipedia, Jones was raised in Vidor, so that explains why he lived there in later life. Let’s hope he transcended the place.

    • Richard says:

      Vidor was infamous. Blacks were not allowed to live there. Jones didn’t have many public opinions on race or on politics so its very hard to know whether his opinions transcended his upbringing in a place like that. He did later record with black artists like Ray Charles but that, of course, doesn’t say anything.

  6. John says:

    Commentary is attacking liberals for not liking country music? Commentary???

    If National Review had this article it would still be kind of terrible, but doesn’t Commentary still consider itself a Jewish publication? I’d have thought that, for all its other sins, Commentary would at least avoid phony celebration of heartland cultural values.

    • Richard says:

      Commentary is still a Jewish journal of sorts but Teachout is not Jewish. And they let Teachout write whatever he wants on music and cultural issues. I find Commentary impossible to read but, as I say above, Teachout is one of the best music writers around.

  7. SatanicPanic says:

    I’ll concede that I don’t like current mainstream country. So what? Maybe mainstream country should stop trying to be so divisive. Maybe mainstream country should stop producing so many songs devoted to mocking liberal city dwellers.

    • Richard says:

      I dont think mockery of urban liberal city dwellers is unique to current mainstream country. I dont like mainstream country now (with a few exceptions like Paisley) because its way too pop sounding for my tastes. I love mainstream country of the 50s to the 70s and there was plenty of mockery of mainstream urban dwellers then, Okie from Muskogee being just one of many such songs.

      • SatanicPanic says:

        That’s true, but I remember listening to country music all the time in the 80′s (dad’s choice) and I don’t remember it being quite so bad. There were some solidly liberal dudes still working- Cash, Nelson, and even the big starts like Randi Travis and Garth Brooks were largeley apolitical. But I could totally be misremembering.

        • Erik Loomis says:

          You are misremebering. Country music has always been a very conservative institution. There were whole genres of one-off popular country songs in the late 60s hating on hippies, anti-war protestors, etc. In the 80s, Ricky Skaggs used his fame at the height of his popularity to lobby for Pat Robertson’s presidential campaign in 88, etc.

          • SatanicPanic says:

            OK, in my defense I was young and not listening all that closely. I remember “Country Boy Can Survive” by Hank Williams Jr. as the first time Country music really put me off. I believe that was in the early 90′s, so that might be coloring my memory.

            The lack of lyrical depth is another thing- being from a rural area I’m sympathetic to a good song about country life, but what they’re putting out right now is just lame pandering.

            • Erik Loomis says:

              That song is actually from 1982, for what it’s worth.

              • SatanicPanic says:

                Yikes, egg on my face. My argument that 80′s country wasn’t as bad as today was a very serious, thoughtful, argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care.

                • Haystack says:

                  There was a brief burst of creativity across the board from the late 70s to the very early 80s. A lot of great music from big stars and upstarts alike. You could call it neo-honkytonk – traditional instrumental line-ups with modern recording techniques – maybe a reaction to the strings and schmaltz that dominated the 70s.

                  Then around 1982 the sound began changing, fast and for the worse, towards the blandified suburbanized pablum that we still hear today. It’s like the country music industry decided it’s image as white-people-only music was more important than just producing great songs.

                  I’d recommend Tom T. Hall’s Ol T’s In Town as both a sterling example of neo-honkytonk and as something of a concept album about the changing face of Nashville from an insider’s perspective.

            • Sherm says:

              I’d love to spit some beechnut in that dude’s eyes, and shoot him down with my ole 45….

              I actually like that song, among several others by Williams Jr.. Just a damn shame he’s such a regressive asshole.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      The problem with mainstream country today is not its subject matter. The problem with mainstream country today is that it is largely cheap knock-offs of 70s arena rock sounds with almost no lyrical depth and a few big hats and steel guitars thrown in for authenticity or something.

      • Richard says:

        I agree with you there. Although I would except Paisley, Gill and a few others from that generalization.

        • rm says:

          Paisley and Zac Brown Band are examples of acts with really great instrumental chops and the ability to not sound like Foreigner-with-a-twang, and there are a few musical greats like Lyle Lovett who are distinctly above the rest.

          But most of the songs are very very unmemorable, even from the people who are good musicians.

          Then again, Sturgeon’s Law applies. Anything we know from the past already has most of the garbage filtered out.

      • rea says:

        largely cheap knock-offs of 70s arena rock

        I’m not that familiar with present-day country. I’m struggling to imagine a present-day country band that sounds like Yes with steel guitars and big hats. Tales of Topographic Honkey-Tonks?

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Think more like Foreigner.

          • Richard says:

            I think that describes some modern country acts but certainly not all. Lady Antebellum and The Band Perry and Rascall Flatts are huge but the sound is much more pop than sounding like Foreigner. Listening to any of them and ignoring the lyrics and the accents of the singers, it would be hard to find any similarities between them and mainstream country of the 50s and 60s.

          • howard says:

            i would say think more like the eagles….

            • Richard says:

              Good point. The Eagles had a huge influence on modern country. And on a related point, I highly recommend the three hour documentary on the Eagles that is playing on Showtime all the time. I’m not a big Eagle fan but its a pretty fascinating documentary because (1) most of the Eagles are pretty articulate, even annoyingly so (2) the Eagles were huge – its pointed out a few times in the documentary that the Eagles Greatest Hits was the biggest selling album of the 20th Century and (3) there is a lot of Eagles footage available, including that of the gig before the first breakup where Felder and Henley were promising to duke it out after the show ended as they were playing the songs. I ended up disliking almost all of them but really enjoying the movie.

              • jim, some guy in iowa says:

                there’s a likable eagle? joe walsh is my guess – he at least *appears* to have a sense of humor

                • Richard says:

                  Well there’s anough footage in the movie of a drunk and stoned Walsh to make him pretty unlikeable (although he can be humorous). I think Schmitt comes off as most likeable (although his brother was a friend of mine and I met him a few times while he was in Poco so I was inclined to like him). Frey, Henley and Felder come off as jerks in their own separate ways.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          Yes are prog-rock, not arena-rock, even if prog was often played in arenas. Pink Floyd united and transcended both genres. And I believe the Alan Parsons project was a hovercraft.

          • nixnutz says:

            Well I would say that in the 80s they transitioned to Prog-Pop, along with Toto and Styx. And even Journey had it’s roots in Santana so I think there’s a large area of overlap between prog and arena-rock, at least in the pre-Def Leppard era.

  8. Creature says:

    Damned shame the Ol’ Possum clocked out. His ‘no show’ antics rivaled the rock-n-roll world wacky scenarios. As for the Eagles- they really were a great venue for Joe Walsh. When Joe was the guitar player in the James Gang, eons ago, he was the local hero around Kent, OH- he had some wild times back them, and he is one of the few rock-n-roll stars to get clean and stay relevant. That said- Hank, Jr. Is but a pale shade of his daddy. Now there was a country star- a true talent with the rowdy lifestyle- in another time he would have checked out at the Chelsea with too much smack and too much booze. Or got clean and learned how to live ‘one day at a time’ rather than ‘day to day’.

  9. bspencer says:

    Teachout’s contention that country music is a red state thing is…wow…just so easily demonstrably false, I scarcely know where to begin.

    Like, every music lover I know has at least a remedial appreciation of country music. I love music, and I wish I were more conversant about country.

    If you listen to any number of pop/indie/rock performers talk, many of them will name the country greats as influences.

    I seriously have no idea what Teachout is talking about.

    • Richard says:

      I dont think Teachout’s red state comments are particularly accurate or well thought out ((and even he says that the argument is somewhat of an exaggeration – seems like a sop to the conservative Commentary audience) but the argument that traditional country music isn’t youth music is a good point and he echoes the point made by me and others that contemporary country music is “often all but impossible to distinguish from the pop-rock-from which it derives”. If you ignore the first three paragraphs of the article (which dont have much to do with the rest), its a good one on the nature of country music and George Jones’ work in particular

      As far as “every” music lover having a remedial appreciation of country, I cant agree. I’ve been a country fan since 1966 and have often been met with the the retort – from jazz fans, classical music fans, rock fans – of “you like that country shit?”. Thankfully, that response has decreased over the years – as hip icons like Dylan and many, many others expressed their love for country – but it surely isn’t gone as evidenced by comments on this blog whenever Erik lauds a country singer.

    • Haystack says:

      He may be partly correct in that from the 80s on, country, or “country”, has fashioned itself according to a red-state cliche of *white* small-town American values. I’m not sure why this had to mean a precipitous drop in quality. It all sounds so half-ass now – the playing, the songwriting, the singing. No wonder us discerning elitists turned away.

      I was an urban rock & roll kid who caught the country bug big-time in the 70s with Waylon Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes, although I was already digging Hank Sr., Buck Owens & Emmylou Harris. Soon George Jones and the rest of the pantheon came on to my radar and I became a loyal believer. I suppose I responded first to the pathos and self-deprecating humor that coursed through so many country songs, but, upon closer listening, was then properly floored by the sheer musicianship of the Nashville session players.

      I couldn’t help but feel some powerful dismay when Nashville’s movers and shakers apparently decided to take that away from people like me and let a vital living art form become a historical artifact.

      • Richard says:

        “I was an urban rock & roll kid who caught the country bug big-time in the 70s with Waylon Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes, although I was already digging Hank Sr., Buck Owens & Emmylou Harris. Soon George Jones and the rest of the pantheon came on to my radar and I became a loyal believer.”

        Not too far from my roots. I was an urban kid who loved soul musi and blues who went away to Berkeley and hooked up with musicians who had “James Brown is God and Buck Owens is the messiah” written on their living room wall. They introduced me to Buck and Merle and George; I introduced them to Wilson and Jimmy McCracklin and James Carr. A little bit later, Honky Tonk Heroes and Phases and Stages were huge to me.

  10. [...] comes And Then I Wrote is a good example of the singles vs. albums format in country music that Scott was talking about yesterday. It’s a really phenomenal album but it’s also clear that it is basically a bunch of [...]

  11. Western Dave says:

    There are a lot of great women recording in country music right now: Kacey Musgraves, Pistol Annies (and Miranda Lambert solo), Jennifer Nettles could sing the phone book and I’d be reasonably happy with her doing it. I don’t know if you want to count Taylor Swift, but her new album has some really solid songwriting, even if it doesn’t “sound country” (whatever that means). The again, I’m with Buck Owens, who followed up his promise to only record country music by recording Johnny B. Goode.

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