A Powerful Jones

Dwight Garner reviews George Jones' autobiography "I Lived to Tell It All".

Published August 19, 1996 4:27PM (EDT)

"if it appeals to the most lowdown kind of human behavior, you name it
and I've done it," George Jones writes in his frank and vinegary new
autobiography, "I Lived to Tell It All" (Villard). The book is a guided tour --
complete with action shots of the singer trying to punch out prying
photographers, Sean Penn-style -- across what Jones calls "a sea of whiskey
and a mountain of cocaine." It's also plump with nearly as much sexual
carnage and stray gunfire as Legs McNeil's recent punk-rock history,
"Please Kill Me." Groupies? Counting 'em all up, Jones says, would be like
"asking a bricklayer to remember all the bricks."

As it happens, Jones' new album is also called "I Lived to Tell It
All," and it's a title that's going to invite some listeners to confuse it
with yet another career-retrospective -- one more disc atop Jones' high
heap of "greatest hits" compilations. (It doesn't help that both book and
LP share the same mock-pensive cover photograph.) The good news is that
"I Lived to Tell It All" isn't a greatest hits package at all, but that
it functions like one. It's not just that these mature, nervy songs feel
instantly familiar (although they do). It's that they allow Jones to
express the full, rueful range of his interpretive gifts -- his undeniable
barroom gravitas -- in a way he hasn't been able to since his
devastatingly plain-spoken 1980 album, "I Am What I Am."

Not that there isn't some real It Came From Nashville crud here. A few
songs squeak past on archetypal groaners. "With hundred proof memories,"
Jones warbles at one point, "you don't think and drive." And a cut called
"The Lone Ranger" is a paean to Coor's beer ("I had more Silver Bullets
last night," the chorus jangles, "than the Lone Ranger") that's as canned
and corny as the lacquered haircut -- a kind of Jimmy Johnson flying
wedge --Jones has affected in recent years. Still, as cruddy as "The Lone Ranger"
may be, at least it's jaunty, catchy crud. Like a masterfully tinny
commercial, I've been utterly unable to shake it out of my head -- I
wouldn't be surprised if it became a woozy late-summer radio favorite.

Unlike Jones' autobiography, "I Lived to Tell It All" (the album)
doesn't traffic in lurid details; it isn't a tell-all exorcism, and Jones
the bricklayer isn't laying down any specific bricks. "I Must Have Done
Something Bad in My Life" is a bluesy, deeply melancholy ballad that hints
at spousal abuse (Jones has admitted he slapped around Tammy Wynette, among
others), and "Honky Tonk Song" reprises an anecdote from the book in which
Jones, stranded without a car, is so desperate for whiskey that he rolls
regally into town atop a riding lawnmower. And that's about it.

But whatever the 10 songs here lack in precise details, Jones more
than makes up for it in emotion. His measured vocals have never sounded
more assured, and he gives these songs complexity to burn. I never thought
I'd be quoting Alfred Kazin to get across the burnished shadings in George
Jones' voice, but "I Lived to Tell It All" puts me in mind of Kazin's
comment in "On Native Grounds" that a great artist's work always has a
"marginal suggestiveness" that "indicates those unspoken reserves, that
silent assessment of life, that can be heard below and beyond the slow
marshaling of his thought."

Jones puts a similar kind of unspoken reserve to work all over "I
Lived to Tell It All." The song "It Ain't Gonna Worry My Mind," for
instance, is a spare, lovely and potent workingman's lament about faith in
the midst of "troubled times" that John Hiatt should scramble to cover on
his next LP. And "Tied to a Stone" is a similarly forthright, deeply
compelling ballad about a man who reviews his mistakes after waking up to
find that his wife's "side of the bed was cold." On these cuts and many
others, producers Buddy Cannon and Norro Wilson have had the good sense to
strip away the clutter and leave just a hint of instrumental sweetness
to frame Jones' voice.

That slight sweetness disappears entirely on several songs, notably a
fine and gleefully mean-spirited critique of current country music called
"Billy B. Bad." Jones spends plenty of time in his autobiography bashing
the "musical mush" that's coming out of Nashville today, but on "Billy B.
Bad" he gets more specific, ridiculing a singer who sounds an awful lot
like Billy Ray Cyrus: "Didn't have much soul or country roots/But he sure
looked cute in his cowboy suit." The song ends with a particularly nasty
riff, that an over-the-hill Billy B. Bad has "just tested positive for
Branson." Of course, Jones reserves the right to be completely
contradictory: The song doesn't mention the fact that, in his
autobiography, there's a photo of Cyrus and Jones standing next to one
another, looking chummy and grinning.

For the most part, though, "I Lived to Tell It All" is deliciously
old-fashioned without rubbing your nose in country "purity"; it goes down
like a Jones album from the late '60s or early '70s. I only wish, greedily,
that he'd split the album's five rave-ups and five cry-in-your-beer ballads
into de facto A and B sides, instead of spreading them across the LP. (The
ballads would comprise a classic country "make-out" side.)

That's how I split the songs up when I made a cassette copy for my Walkman.
Confession: Listening to "I Lived to Tell It All" on the summer streets of
Manhattan, or in the sweltering subway, I've found, is a wildly pleasurable (if
somewhat disorienting) experience; it transforms New York's rude cacophony into a
kind of casually southern-fried Fellini film. The easy grace in Jones' voice seems
to pour up from the cracks in the pavement.

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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