The radio played George Jones at the barbecue joint where I ate lunch. I was eating Saint Louis ribs. Overhead, George Jones sang “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
Whenever George sings the opening lyrics to this tune, a chill dances up my spinal column and I get sentimental. Immediately, I remember sitting in my father’s truck cab, wearing my Little League uniform, listening to the staticky AM station.
I glanced around the barbecue joint to make sure I wasn’t being watched during my musical moment. Then I dabbed my chin with a napkin and helped George remember the words.
I write a lot about old country music, and I’m sure the subject gets tiresome. But I do this for an important and well-planned reason:
Because I don’t have to do any actual research.
But also, because if you and I don’t keep these timeless melodies alive, who will?
As a boy, my family drove great distances to support the cause of Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff. We paid good money to watch Roy tear up his apple-tree fiddle and crack jokes alongside Sarah Cannon. Ernest Tubb was still making appearances at the Opry when I was a babe. And I don’t want to let all that go.
The idiocy they’re cranking out on the radio today simply cannot compare to the country tunes of yore.
Classic country is folk art. Plain and simple. It is subtle lyricism based on a two-beat bassline, a steel-stringed rhythm section, and bottled malt beverages. This music was the poetry of stick welders, sharecroppers, and coal miners’ kids. And it’s ours.
When Loretta Lynn sang “Blue Kentucky Girl,” you weren’t merely listening to a radio. You were listening to one of your own take the microphone. This is why whenever Willie sang “You Took My Happy Away,” your daddy’s allergies always acted up.
I don’t mean to be critical, but new country is an embarrassment to my kind. Our ancestors would choke on their Beechnut if they heard such sacrilege muddying the airwaves.
Men like my father didn’t spend 12 hours welding column splices only to jump into the Ford and listen to Luke Bryan sing about shaking his sugar shaker. My father would have driven his truck straight off the interstate.
No way. We listened to Merle, Chet, Don Gibson, and the Indelible Mister Jim Reeves. And we turned it up whenever George Jones uttered: “He said I’ll love you till I die…”
Lord have mercy.
Yesterday, I was in the supermarket and was assaulted with modern country-pop on the radio. I listened to several hit “bro country” songs against my will in the checkout lane. The lyrics demonstrated about as much poetic creativity as a gaseous bodily discharge.
I prefer the genuine stuff. There were no backup dancers in our country music. No music videos. We had out-of-tune pianos, twin fiddles, and chicken-wire cages around the stage. And we would travel far and wide to find the real thing.
One time my cousin Ed Lee and I went to see a George Jones concert in Tennessee. We were teenagers. We drove several hundred miles crammed in a pickup cab, surviving on a steady diet of Van Camp’s pork and beans, taking turns behind the wheel.
You do not want to be in a vehicle with young men who eat pork and beans.
The concert was everything we dreamed it would be. George “the Possum” Jones wore a sparkly suit that was blinding. His voice was perfection. Also, you wouldn’t have wanted to light a match within ten feet of him, if you catch my drift.
Another time we traveled to Texas to see Randy Travis. Randy and his band performed before a modest nighttime crowd. The band wore full suits and neckties. There was a standup bass, a dobro, a flat picker, and a fiddle. Pure class. Nobody shook any sugar shakers.
Randy sang three or four Hank Williams tunes, then followed with “Walking the Floor Over You.” And when they played “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” hundreds of people flicked their lighters.
Ed Lee couldn’t find a BIC lighter to wave in the air, so he waved his BIC pen instead. The effect wasn’t the same, but his heart was in the right place.
The older I get, the more this world changes, and the further I get left behind. Minnie Pearl is dead. Merle Haggard is with his mama. And Merle Travis is forgotten.
Every day I see good people fighting about trivial things when they ought to be doing something constructive like volunteering for VBS. Outdoor dances have been replaced with dating apps, and nobody even knows who Sadie Hawkins is anymore.
All this could depress me if I thought about it long enough, but I refuse to dwell on sad topics.
Instead, I ate my ribs and listened to a distant radio. I remembered riding in that F-100 with my old man who kept one finger on the wheel while traveling fifty. Him covered in iron soot; me in my first baseman’s uniform. Radio blaring.
Anyway, that’s why I like George Jones.