Friday, April 26, 2013

'The Possum' Passes Away

If we all could sound like we wanted to, we'd all sound like George Jones.

Waylon Jennings

I'm not the country music fan that some of my friends are.

Sure, there are some country performers that I like to listen to — if I'm in the right mood. None of the modern stuff, though. I prefer country singers like Merle Haggard or Waylon Jennings or Hank Williams Sr.

George Jones, who died in Nashville today at the age of 81, was in that category, too, but he was never my favorite, and I rarely listened to him.

That may seem contradictory. I grew up in the South, and country music was always playing on the radios in the barber shops, gas stations and hardware stores where I went with my father as a child.

And one of my earliest memories is of hearing the rockabilly song, "Root Beer," being played on one of those radios in one of those businesses. I guess I ought to remember more, but I don't. Fact was, in my then–small hometown, the only real difference between those businesses was the products they sold or services they provided.

Otherwise, they were pretty much the same. And so were most of the country songs I heard — or at least they seemed that way to me.

(Which reminds me ... I worked with a guy once who had been employed as a cameraman for a company that taped weddings and receptions. He once told me that he taped a Latino wedding that lasted for four hours, and a Tejano band provided the music.

("They played for four hours," he told me, "and it was the same song the whole time!")

Anyway, I guess that was the kind of music for which Jones was known initially, but he evolved into a balladeer, and that is how I knew him as I got older. In those days, I guess I would have thought of his first #1 hit, "She Thinks I Still Care," whenever his name was mentioned.

But I was more interested in Southern rock — Lynyrd Skynyrd or ZZ Top. George Jones and his ilk seemed more suited for people of my parents' generation. At that time in my life, rock music seemed to be about the joy of living whereas country music was about sadness and death.

In addition to his drinking — which was legendary — Jones was also known for his duets with his one–time wife, Tammy Wynette, who died 15 years ago this month. They had a tumultuous marriage but a popular recording partnership, and I guess that was one of the things that attracted people to him. It never really appealed to me, though. Maybe I missed out on something.

I didn't miss out on what turned out to be his iconic hit, 1980's "He Stopped Loving Her Today," although I guess I sort of did at first.

I was in college when the song was released, and I really didn't pay much attention at the time, but I did later, and I had to agree with the conclusions of several surveys — it may well be the greatest country song of all time. It's hard to say that, I suppose, when there are so many worthy nominees, but it's hard not to say it after you've heard the melancholy tale of a man who loved a woman all his life, who never gave up on the hope, however slim it may have been, that they would eventually be together — until he died.

And Jones had the perfect voice for it. He thought the song was too morbid to be successful, but he was wrong.

For a long time, I've heard Jones called "The Possum," but I never knew why until after he died. It's because his nose and general facial features resembled the creature.

Personally, I never saw it. And I don't think that is a bad thing, either. Of course, I'm seeing a lot of things about Jones after his death that I never gave much thought when he was alive.

I doubt that I will ever see him as a possum.

But it is tempting to equate "He Stopped Loving Her Today" with a line from "The Natural," which was in theaters nearly 30 years ago.

In that movie, Robert Redford's character observed, "Some mistakes we never stop paying for."

Jones made his share of mistakes in his life — just like the rest of us. But even though he had his reservations about recording "He Stopped Loving Her Today," time has proven that it wasn't a mistake for him to record it.

Nor was it a mistake for him to record the other songs in his library, from "Root Beer" to "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and everything in between.

He stopped living today, but he still lives through the miracle of recordings. No mistake there.