Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Possum is Awesome: Happy Birthday George Jones

Back in the 1970s, odds favored the inevitable and final self-destruction of George Jones to occur before that decade’s end. But here he is today, amazingly enough, still alive in 2009, turning 78 today.

Born September 12, 1931, in the Big Thicket outpost of Saratoga, Texas, Jones came of age during the birth of honky tonk, hearing Al Dexter, Hank Williams, and Lefty Frizzell on beerjoint jukeboxes and Opry radio. The Possum, so named for his flat-top haircut and blank, beady eyes, cut his first sides for Pappy Daily’s fledgling Starday Records. In a makeshift studio lined with acoustical egg cartons--inspiration for the KORN radio booth on Hee-Haw?--Jones cut his earliest hit “Why Baby Why” from 1955. Before that, however, he’d already cut a few sides, including the killer “Play It Cool, Man,” a duet with rockabilly Sonny Burns.

Nick Tosches already wrote the definitive profile on the Possum, “George Jones: The Grand Tour,” the full version of which is reprinted in The Nick Tosches Reader (Da Capo, 2000). There Tosches describes an essentially unknowable man, a blank spot in possession of one of the greatest voices in Country Music, a mysterious “cipher,” a “prisoner of drink,” and later, prisoner of a bleak sobriety. About him we have only clues; a big one for Tosches is Jones’ rendition of Cindy Walker’s “Warm Red Wine,” included on the 1962 LP George Jones Sings Bob Wills.

The Possum’s career contains so many great chapters...there’s the earliest Starday and Mercury stuff from the 50s, the Musicor stuff from the 60s, when Johnny Paycheck played bass in the Jones Boys and, it is said, lent new direction to Jones’ own singing. (See my April post on Paycheck to hear some of that stuff.) Even much of the lush (pun intended) Billy Sherrill stuff is killer.

About that early, hard-boppin’ Thumper Jones phase, the Possum professes embarassment. “I don’t guess I’m ever gonna live that down,” he once told Tosches. But sides like “Rock It”, “How Come It”, “Maybe Little Baby”, and a slew of others he and Pappy Daily worked up in their attempt to get with that newfangled rock ‘n’ roll then eclipsing country music, now rank as classics.


Westex said...

The Mercury era blows the straight Starday stuff outta the water imo, "Too Much Water" being a favorite. "Maybe Little Baby"... so wild.

Bob Pomeroy said...

Well, one man's "Root Beer" is another man's "Eskimo Pie", I guess.

WESTEX said...

"Root Beer"!!! Love that one, too.