Country great George Jones not so mighty, mighty pleasin’

by Ryan Snyder

Country great George Jones not so mighty, mighty pleasin’

What a difference a year makes. At almost exactly this time in 2008, the War Memorial Auditorium was filled with the earthen tang of Bob Weir & Ratdog’s followers, whose utter disregard for seating decorum was only exceeded by their public taste for cannabis. This past Saturday, the crowd was more Fox News than NORML when country music legend George Jones came to town, though no one was shy about dancing in the aisles in this instance either. Jones is working his “No Show” handle as hard as he can these days, with the well-deserved nickname plastered on just about every piece of swag at the merch table, even if his hard-drinking days are a distant memory.

With no opening act on tap, the Jones Boys took the stage for a few numbers of their own that featured the vocal talents of several band members. Drummer and tour manager Bobby Birkhead — the man tasked with ensuring that everyone “shows up” — opened before backup singer and pretty foil Brittany Allyn performed a couple of stirring, albeit somewhat pedestrian contemporary numbers. Kent Goodson finished off the warm-up with one of the evening’s rockingest number, Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”

The man himself appeared after the 15-minute intro, sporting the usual swept bowl-cut now referred to as the “Jimmy Johnson,” and opened with the essential “Why Baby Why.” It was clear from the moment that he took the mic that volume was going to be a recurring issue, though the audience knew every word to every song and was obliged to fill the room with his classic pronouncements on drinking and cheating. It’s hard to fault that kind of enthusiasm, but it could have been much cooler to hear one of the last remaining voices of the golden era of country music than a Budweiser-fueled sing-along.

In fairness, it’s not as though the 78-year-old Jones’ voice is as capable as it once was, though even at his peak he was known more for the weight of his words than having golden pipes. He can still break your heart by holding his notes just right, but Jones’ husky, strained tenor oftentimes sounded a bit grandfatherly. Time looked to be doing a number on Jones in other ways and the show’s muted sound quality may have been a result of it. Jones stepped aside while the band tore into spirited jams of “Black Mountain Rag” and “Fire on the Mountain” and promptly covered his ears and grimaced as the volume jumped. It’s debatable whether he was doing so in jest, but his body language argued for sincerity.

Nostalgia for that bygone country sound is still what drives his show, however. Seeing him perform the sentimental numbers like “Choices,” “I’ve Always Been Lucky With You” and “You’re Still On My Mind” can’t easily be replaced by YouTube videos, especially when considering how his long-term health might be affected by decades of prodigious alcohol consumption. Jones remains self-effacing in that regard, including footage of him berating cops and assaulting cameramen alongside shots of marquees reading “George Jones CANCELLED” on the PowerPoint presentation that passed for a multimedia display.

Jones gave the nod to his greatest peers during “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” with a toughing montage stills. Of course, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Sr. and Willie Nelson images elicited uproarious cheers from the crowd, though it was a tad humorous to hear them fall silent during shots of less familiar stars like Faron Young, Bob Wills and Porter Wagoner. With a catalog that includes so many classics, it was disappointing to hear a half dozen of the best squeezed into a five-minute medley toward the end. It’s almost blasphemous to hear country chart-toppers like “Walk Through This World With Me,” “She Thinks I Still Care” and the all-time great drinking song “White Lightning” abridged into 45-second afterthoughts.

It’s debatable whether posterity will have him standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Willie and Merle, but Jones’ place among the all-time greats of country music is still secure. It’s simply baffling, however, why his live performance had to be so heavy on the sales pitch for his newest album, A Collection of My Best Recollections. Jones made it clear several times during the show that it could only be had through a visit to your local Cracker Barrel, even leaving the company’s logo onscreen through an entire song. It’s the kind of direction that does nothing but cheapen the image of a man who, over 50 years of recording and performing, should have earned enough to make that sort of shilling unnecessary.

Jones remains selfeffacing in that regard, including footage of himberating cops and assaulting cameramen alongside shots of marqueesreading “George Jones CANCELLED” on the PowerPoint presentation thatpassed for a multimedia display.