George Jones has died, and I am afraid a lot of people will think he was a hypocrite. George Jones was no hypocrite. He was the troubadour of the Christ-haunted South. The raw emotion, and even whispers of torture, in his voice can teach American Christianity much about the nature of sin and the longing for repentance.
Jones is easy to caricature as a hypocrite, to be sure. He performed some of the greatest songs in country music history. I would fight anyone, metaphorically speaking, who denies that “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is the greatest country song of all time, but Jones was known for more than his songs. His failed marriages, most notably from fellow country music star Tammy Wynette, and his life-long skirmish with substance abuse, were always in the headlines. Few people knew of George Jones who did not immediately think of the anecdote of his riding a lawn mower to the liquor store after the authorities, and his long-suffering wife, took away his freedom to drive a car.
Jones did what any public relations-savvy entertainer would do. He owned his brand. After fans were upset by a series of canceled shows, due to Jones’ drunkenness, he played up the image as “No Show Jones.” He sang light songs about drunkenness and divorce, such as “White Lightning” in which he referred to whiskey (in some live concert versions) as “Baptist corn squeezing.”
Jones and Wynette teamed up for several songs. He knew that most of his fans would identify “He Stopped Loving Her Today” with Wynette, always thought of in country music fans’ minds as the first couple of the Grand Ole Opry, right along with June Carter and Johnny Cash.
But Jones did not present a light picture of his frailties. His songs demonstrated that he did not think of these things as frailties at all, as our therapeutic culture would have us to do. Yes, Jones sang with a wink in his eye often about liquor and pills and loneliness and divorce, but then he would turn around and sing of these things as Hell. The raw emotion of Jones’ vocal chords communicated the anguish of a father who has lost his family in “Grand Tour,” as he takes a stranger through every room in the house, including the empty nursery where the baby of a broken home once lay.
Yes he could sing about alcohol in a playful song comparing his love to the smoothness of Tennessee whiskey, the sweetness of strawberry wine, but he would then sing of living his life “Still Doing Time” in a “honky-tonk prison.” He would sing honestly of his prison to alcoholism as a result of his broken relationships: “If Drinking Don’t Kill Me, Her Memory Will.” This is not a glorification of alcohol; it is the scratchings against the door of a man in pain.
Some may see hypocrisy in the fact that Jones sang gospel songs. The same emotion with which he sang of drunkenness and honky-tonking, he turned to sing of “Just a Little Talk with Jesus Makes Things Right.” He often in concerts led the crowd in old gospel favorites, such as “Amazing Grace” or “I’ll Fly Away.” But I don’t think this is hypocrisy. This is not a man branding himself with two different and contradictory impulses. This was a man who sang of the horrors of sin, with a longing for a gospel he had heard and, it seemed, he hoped could deliver him. In Jones’ songs, you hear the old Baptist and Pentecostal fear that maybe, horrifically, one has passed over into the stage of Esau who, as the Bible puts it, “could not find repentance though he sought it with tears.”
I’m not sure whether Jones sought repentance with tears, but he certainly sang of the longing for it with a quavering voice. In that sense, Jones communicated exactly what Flannery O’Connor wrote of when she spoke of a “Christ-haunted South,” a region with a ubiquitous gospel, but without the ubiquity of gospel power. Jones communicated what all of us, left to ourselves, seek to suppress. Life without Christ is leading us to a lonely grave. This is why of all of Jones’ corpus, I find most powerful his rendition of “The Cup Of Loneliness,” a song about Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane. This song still speaks to the hellishness of hedonism. I was struck a couple of seasons back when the television series Mad Men ended an episode about the dissipation about the same sorts of things Jones always sang about, with this song playing over the closing credits.
George Jones is dead. He stopped loving her today. They’ll place a wreath upon his door, and soon they’ll carry him away. That’s true. Call Jones a genius; he was. Call Jones honest; he was. Call Jones tortured; he was. Call Jones lonely; he was.
But don’t call him a hypocrite.
This post originally appeared at the First Things’”On the Square” blog. Cross-posted with permission.