More than 16 million people tuned in to the Country Music Association’s 2011 awards show on ABC in November—the fourth most watched program of the week. Its success was predictable. Although rock albums outsell country albums by a wide margin, country outranks rock on Billboard’s weekly “Hot 100” chart of single record sales and the number of radio stations with all-country formats is roughly twice that of the stations that play rock.
Yet the CMA awards no less predictably received scant attention from the mainstream media. Country is rarely written about in major newspapers and magazines and almost never seen or heard on network TV or in Hollywood films. Nor is its place in middlebrow culture other than marginal. Of the 176 recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors, a reliable index of middlebrow réclame, only six have been country musicians.
Why does country music have so modest a cultural profile? Because it is a red-state phenomenon. Most (though by no means all) of its fans live far from the coastal cities and college towns whose residents shape the content of the mainstream media. It is no accident that New York is the only major media market in America without even one country-music radio station. Just as the Democratic Party has chosen to abandon white working-class voters and attempt to build a winning coalition consisting solely of knowledge-class white liberals and lower-income blacks and Hispanics, so have the mainstream media chosen to ignore the musical tastes of what most surveys reckon to be one-third of the American public.
The career of George Jones dramatizes the extent to which much of America’s cultural elite continues to look upon country music as an artistic backwater. Born in Texas in 1931 and still active as a performer, Jones is universally ranked among the greatest of all country singers. His gifts were acknowledged by no less an authority on popular music than Frank Sinatra, who called him “the second-best singer in America.” Yet his name is largely unknown to those who do not follow the country-music scene, and the publication last year of an important academic-press book about Jones was all but ignored by the major media.
To be sure, Jack Isenhour’s He Stopped Loving Her Today: George Jones, Billy Sherrill, and the Pretty-Much Totally True Story of the Making of the Greatest Country Record of All Time (University Press of Mississippi, 176 pages) is, as its subtitle suggests, erratically written. But even though Isenhour’s overheated, lapel-grabbing style distracts from the story he has to tell, He Stopped Loving Her Today manages to make effective use of Jones’s career as a framework for explaining how country songs are written and recorded—and why they appeal so powerfully to the citizens of Red America.
To the outsider, country music consists of homespun narratives of lost love sung by guitar-strumming primitives with twangy accents who are accompanied by small bands dominated by fiddles and steel guitars.
Like all clichés, this one contains a certain amount of truth, but no part of it, as Jack Isenhour explains, can be taken at face value. Ever since country music was first recorded in the 1920s, it has been a commercial music manufactured by experienced craftsmen for consumption by a mass audience; and by the 1950s, when George Jones cut his first records, it was professionalized to the same extent as any other kind of pop music. Most country songs, for instance, are written not by the people who sing them, but by full-time non-performing songwriters. These latter men and women are the ones who, more than anyone else, have defined country as a musical genre.
Harlan Howard, one of the most admired of country songwriters, famously defined country music as “three chords and the truth.” This bon mot points to the genre’s essential simplicity. Country is both harmonically and lyrically straightforward (one never encounters triple rhymes in a country song). But simplicity is not the same as naiveté, and despite their unpretentious vernacular diction, the best country lyrics are full of the same lapidary felicities found in the work of a golden-age songwriter such as Irving Berlin. A case in point is Howard’s own “Heartaches by the Number” (1959): “Now I’ve got heartaches by the number/Troubles by the score/Every day you love me less/Each day I love you more.” Another is “She Thinks I Still Care,” written by Dickey Lee and Steve Duffy and recorded by Jones in 1962: “Just because I ask a friend about her/Just because I spoke her name somewhere/Just because I rang her number by mistake today/She thinks I still care.”
That both of these ballads should be torch songs is anything but surprising. Not all country songs are depressing, but unlike golden-age pop songs, which are almost always idealized evocations of youthful courtship, classic country ballads tend to be first-person stories of failed love. The fictional tellers of these doleful tales are typically married—or divorced—and frequently have children. Often they sing of their related struggles with alcohol, and on occasion they describe their jobs, which are usually unsatisfactory. As for adultery, to which reference is scarcely ever made in golden-age pop, it is so common in country music as to comprise the subject matter of a whole sub-genre known as “cheating songs,” in which it is taken for granted that the errant spouse will (or should) be racked with guilt.
Country is, in short, an adult music, an idiom aimed at those who work for a living and have lost the illusions of their youth. This mature perspective is central to its appeal to working- and middle-class Americans, as is the fact that it is a music made by people whose regional accents proudly show their red-state origins. Most important of all, country music acknowledges the unpleasant truth that life is hard and sometimes tragic—a truth that is George Jones’s stock-in-trade.
Jones first hit the charts in the 50s with up-tempo rockabilly-flavored songs such as “White Lightning” and “Why Baby Why,” but it was the frank emotionalism of his balladry that made him a star. A high baritone with a pronounced Texas accent, he phrases like a steel guitarist, gliding from note to note and interpolating the exaggerated diphthongs that are his trademark (“Just be-cause I-yee rang her num-berr baah-yee mis-tayyke to-da-yee”). Singing with the wide-open, uncovered vowels of an Irish tenor, he leaves no doubt of the intensity of his response to a lyric, and for all his vocal virtuosity, it is his forthright sincerity that makes the deepest impression.
Jones’s ability to give eloquent voice to sorrow doubtless arises in part from his personal story, an all-too-familiar chronicle of drunkenness and drug abuse. But while He Stopped Loving Her Today does not shrink from telling the squalid truth about the now reformed alcoholic whose binges caused him to miss so many concerts that he came to be known as “No-Show Jones,” Jack Isenhour is far more interested in the complex process by which Jones and his colleagues created his most memorable recordings.
Isenhour’s book is named after a song written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman, a ballad that tells the story of a friend who is obsessed with a lost love. Midway through “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” it is revealed that the unhappy lover has died and that the singer is present at his funeral: “I went to see him just today/Oh, but I didn’t see no tears/All dressed up to go away/First time I’d seen him smile in years.” Jones was initially skeptical about recording the song, which he called “a morbid son-of-a-bitch,” but his hugely successful 1980 version is now considered by many fans and critics to be the quintessential country recording of the postwar era. It is just the sort of performance that Frank Sinatra, himself a specialist in quarter-to-three despair, surely had in mind when he praised Jones’s singing.
But “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” as Isenhour recounts in painstaking detail, was the furthest possible thing from a one-man effort. The record was produced by Billy Sherrill, Jones’s longtime studio collaborator, who was responsible for steering the singer away from the dirt-plain Hank Williams–style instrumental backing of his early recordings and toward the smoother, more elaborately arranged style known in the trade as the “Nashville sound.” In addition to a steel guitarist, a harmonica player, and a rhythm section, all of whom were Nashville studio musicians rather than members of Jones’s working band, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” makes prominent use of a chorus and a sugary-sounding string section.* Moreover, Jones was not present when the song’s instrumental tracks were taped—he dubbed his vocal track separately—and had nothing to do with their conception or creation, just as he took no part in writing the song.
The resulting record, writes Isenhour, is “a compilation of musical elements, a sound mosaic created in the studio by Billy Sherrill and the engineers.” It is, in other words, a wholly collaborative effort. Although Jones’s singing is central to its total effect, he is no more the “author” of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” than Humphrey Bogart was the “author” of The Maltese Falcon.
Indeed, it would be more accurate, as is done in Hollywood, to speak of George Jones as the star of “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which was created, like a Hollywood movie, not to make an artistic statement but to sell as many copies as possible. As Billy Sherrill himself frankly admits:
You don’t go in and try to record what’s great; you go in and try to record what’s commercial….You go in and try to figure out what people are looking for, what they want to buy. You try to put on the public’s ears.
Country music, needless to say, has changed greatly in the quarter-century since Jones last topped the charts. The “hard” style of his generation of country singers and their legendary predecessors long ago gave way to a slicker, youth-oriented sound. The music of such contemporary country acts as The Band Perry and Lady Antebellum is often all but impossible to distinguish from the pop-rock from which it derives, save for the distinctive red-state accents in which it is sung.
But while today’s country stars prefer to steer clear of Jones’s piercing pathos, what they do remains recognizably related to what he did (and continues to do). Like him, they are professional purveyors of a commercial music that is created collaboratively—and their music, like his, continues to appeal to the working- and middle-class listeners whose everyday lives are portrayed in its lyrics. That is part of what makes country music commercial: It tells ordinary Americans the truth about their lives. What makes the best of it art is that it does so with simplicity, economy, and beauty. No country singer has ever been more truthful—or more artful—than George Jones.
* Sherrill’s distinctive style of production can be heard to more tasteful effect on another of Jones’s hit singles, “The Grand Tour” (1974).