Country Music

Professor Knowall

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Don Gibson, who always considered himself a songwriter first and a singer second, didn’t fake the feelings of despondency he captured so succinctly in his best songs. With only a second grade primary education, he once said - “Simple is the only way I can write”, displaying the economy of words that cornerstoned his songwriting. In contrast to, say, a Rhodes Scholar like Kris Kristoffosen who brought sophisticated techniques of poetry and metaphor into his songwriting, Gibson's writing was simple, noun loaded, direct, sparse - and yet so effective. Consider -
I can’t stop wanting you / It’s useless to say / So I’ll just live my life / In dreams of yesterday...” is how he succinctly summed up the feeling of lost love in 'I Can’t Stop Loving You'. “My love has been untrue / She’s found somebody new / It’s been a blue, blue day for me...” he wrote in 'Blue Blue Day', which followed 'Oh Lonesome Me' in 1958, keeping Gibson at #1 for 10 weeks the year his career peaked.

While most musicians relish the spotlight of public performance (afterall it comes with the territory) Gibson dreaded it, once telling music critic Robert Hilburn, “I’d rather be whipped with a bullwhip than go out on that stage.” His inability
to engage with an audience beyond just delivering his music, not having any public personality (or good looks) adversely affected his popularity. Merle Haggard once said - “He was singing for a different reason. He was all about what he wrote about. He never was happy in his life ... he wrote about that, and it all led back to one center - that he was a lonely fellow. I think he didn’t know how to be otherwise.”

So, with that knowledge, it's time to look at more of his self-penned songs of loneliness - all hits from 1958 to 1960,
all produced by Chet Atkins, who played guitar on some. We start with 'Look Who's Blue', reaching #8 in 1958 -
"Please, please have pity on me / Oh can't you see that I'm in misery /
Please, please I'm begging like a fool / Woe is me look who's blue
..."


Given his bouts of depression, the song title here was probably exactly what Gibson was thinking precisely at the time he wrote it - 'Who Cares About Me' is at least a great up-tempo romper of a kind that Gibson rarely committed to wax, and went to #3 in 1959, but the lyrics still speak of utter loneliness and even alienation -
"I walk down this old lonely street / And no one seems to want to speak /
Oh who cares? / Yes who cares for me?
..."


In 'Don't Tell Me Your Troubles', lyric-wise Gibson added a dimension. This time he wasn’t alone in feeling lonesome and
blue, but he certainly didn’t appreciate another bloke dumping his pain all over him. Yet again, lyrical simplicity was a Gibson strong point with few wasted words in this #5 hit, also from 1959 -
"... You tell me that she's no good / She's as mean as she can be /
It's written all over your lonesome face / Any heartbreak fool can see /
Leave me alone, go on home / Tell it to a friend / I've got troubles of my own
..." -

Ironically, once when Lefty Frizzell and Opry performer Don Gibson went out drinking together one night (a well matched pair - both musically gifted yet both shunned the limelight and celebrity lifestyle - and both alcoholics), Gibson spent the evening bitterly complaining about his treatment by the Opry. Lefty drove him home, helped him up to his front door and then – angered by having to listen to one more Gibson outburst about his troubles – slammed him up against the house, knocking off Gibson’s toupée.

Another heartfelt (and beautifully sung) song of lost love, regret and lingering desire, 'Just One Time', with a somehat Mexican feel to it in the chorus and guitar (featuring the great Chet Atkins), reached #2 in 1960 -
"... Lips that used to thrill me so / They now thrill someone else I know /
Gone is the love that once was mine / Wish I could see you just one time
..."

Connie Smith had a #2 hit with her cover of 'Just One Time' in 1971. Others covers include Skeeter Davis in 1960, the Everly Brothers in 1963, Johnny Tillotson in 1965, Frank Ifield in 1966, Kitty Wells, Dottie West and Jean Shepard, all in 1971, Chet Atkins himself in 1971, Renée Martel (in French, as "Si on pouvait recommencer") in 1972, Freddy Fender in 1976, Tompall & the Glaser Brothers in 1981, and Chet Atkins & Mark Knopfler as a duo in 1990.

Gibson re-recorded his first hit, 'Sweet Dreams' in the Nashville Sound style in 1960 (a time when many honky tonk
stars like Red Foley, Tex Ritter, Carl Smith, Webb Pierce were also re-recording their earlier songs in the new style). Your own preference for which version you like tells a lot about your music taste. The Nashville Sound version is much more sophisticated and polished, with the backing of first class musicians and the very best in production standards, produced by the best in the business, Chet Atkins. It was designed deliberately to appeal to the mass suburban audience,not just the traditional rural base, and it succeeded. Yet, while acknowledging all of that, I still like the simple, unadorned original honkytonk version of 1955 (the first from yesterday's selection). For me, the smooth makeover transforms what's meant to be a song of pain and despair, so evident in the original version, into an almost sweet romantic ballad. But your take might be different from mine - this version certainly had more overall commercial appeal, reaching # 6 in 1960 -

With this run of 10 top ten hits - including 3 (his first 3) now classic country standards, we're leaving off in 1960 - with Gibson gradually subsiding into depression, drug addiction and alcoholism, his songs reflecting his very real sense of loneliness and alienation - but, as we'll see tomorrow, he still had another classic country standard left in him.
 
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Professor Knowall

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Today starts in 1961 and (as promised when closing yesterday) with another Gibson classic - and it's my favourite Gibson song, 'Sea Of Heartbreak' - but there's a twist. I said Gibson avoided metaphors - well this song is loaded with 'me. But this isn't an exception - the song was written not by Gibson but by Paul Hampton and Hal David. This is lyrically the most eloquent summary of the blue theme that runs through Gibson's music. More than that, the song is one of the greatest written on the subject, and the performance of Gibson here is (IMO) his absolute best (and well supported by Atkin's
A-Team - though perhaps they could've dispensed with the bom, bon, bom bit). It reached # 2 in 1961.

The "feel" of this song is nostalgia for a lost love - it's delicate, but potent. In Greek, "nostalgia" literally means "the pain from an old wound". It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone -
"Sea of heartbreak, lost love an' loneliness / Memories of your caress, so divine /
I wish you were mine again, my dear. / I am on this sea of tears / Sea of heartbreak. ..."



'Lonesome Number One' was the last of Gibson's really big hits in that it was the last to also crossover to the pop charts. The Gibson loneliness theme is by now familiar, even expected. It was decked out with some Mexican guitar flourishes, which probably came from Grady Martin who was one of the guitar pickers on this # 2 hit of 1961 –
"... Every love I've had has faded like a dew / Everyone I wanted has wanted someone new
Heartaches hang around they always come /I surely must be lonesome number one
..."


Although loneliness and depression spurned Don Gibson to create some of the most enduring songs of the 20th century, they also led to bouts of alcohol and drug abuse. In a 1970 interview with 'The Times' newspaper (by which time he had been through rehab and managed to get on top of his addictions, but not before they almost destroyed his career), he said - “I had a lot of problems that hurt me. It’s funny, but a lot of young songwriters in Nashville seem to think pills
can help them. The younger people see people like me and Johnny Cash and begin to feel pills are part of the secret
of success ... It only hurts a songwriter. I’m not looking for sympathy, but I’d like to have a few of those years back
.”

After 1961, Gibson went through a dark, harrowing 5 years of out of control amphetamines addiction and alcoholism mixed with depression. His song-writing and great run of hits dried up, he was dropped by the Grand Ole Opry in 1964 and it seemed his career (and possibly his life) were effectively coming to an end. Then he was rescued by the love of a woman. A retreat back to his old home town of Shelby was made in 1966, where he met and married a hometown gal and with the help of his new wife, managed to overcome his chemical dependencies and return to work before the end of the decade.

First released in 1966 on his RCA album "Great Country Songs", 'Yes - I'm Hurting' reached #6 as a single, his first top 10 hit since 1961. The voice has changed quite a bit - the dark years of drug and alcohol abuse weren't kind to Gibson's vocal chords, but his delivery style was still up there -


So well had Gibson recovered, both physically and emotionally from his many problems (all with the help of his good woman), by 1971 he had kicked his amphetamine addiction once and for all, had stopped drinking and his voice had largely recovered as a consequence. We even find him singing a cheerful song (just to prove he could?) - it's just a
simple song with a catchy tune, but it is cheerful, upbeat and went to # 5 -


'Woman (Sensuous Woman)' was Don Gibson's final # 1 hit, in 1972. I don't consider this matches his material from his great creative period from 1957 to 1961, but it's lyrics describe a very real situation for many (yes - I confess I've been there) and here is a decent live version (not that the shy Gibson was much of an entertainer as such - he just went out and sang, relying totally on his music talent, not his personality). Anyway, here it is, Gibson's final # 1 hit from 1972 -
"... Someone true is waiting I should be with her / And she don't know I crave your ecstasy
But many hearts will break if I don't conquer / This lustful spell you've cast over me
..."

Other artists released their versions of "Woman (Sensuous Woman)," including Ray Charles on his 1984 album "Do I Ever Cross Your Mind" and Mark Chesnutt, whose version peaked at #21 in 1994.

So, at 1972, we leave off Don Gibson for just one more day - no longer so lonely, no longer swallowing amphetamines
or drinking himself to oblivion, his career reviving - though his great song-writing days and hits are now behind him. Tomorrow will deliver (I think or hope) a fitting farewell.
 

Professor Knowall

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Don Gibson had no more # 1 hits after 1972, despite his recovery from drug addiction and alcoholism. However his Grand Ole Opry membership was renewed in 1975, and he continued to produce reasonably well-received material up until 1980, but during the 1980's and 1990's, with the increasing emphasis already by then on being an "entertainer", not just a very talented musician, his activity became primarily restricted to occasional tours and his Opry appearances.

To farewell Gibson, I have 2 more songs, neither of which were hits (at least not for him), but one that seems to sum up Gibson - I even quoted some lyrics from it in the opening paragraph a few days back introducing him - and the other was an upbeat number from 1959, which I'm starting with - 'Won’t Cha Come Back To Me'. I felt there had to be something cheery to complete the selections and, although the title doesn’t sound promising, the song fits the bill nicely. It appeared on the third RCA album, "That Gibson Boy". The lead guitarist, Hank Garland doesn’t take any prisoners on his break, on which he’s accompanied by a sole high and hooting Jordanaire. The whole thing is over in just a minute and a half - a little gem -


'(I'd Be) A Legend in My Time' was written and recorded by Gibson in 1960. It appeared as the B-side of his hit 'Far Far Away', from the album "Sweet Dreams". The sheer absurdity of this song makes it a selection. It’s as if someone once said to Gibson - “If there were prizes for being miserable, you’d win them all” and the thought balloon went up, “There’s
a song in that”. That’s all it’s about but it's treat it with complete sincerity, Floyd doing his rockaballad thing on the piano, and amazingly it works - because it seemed to sum up Gibson -
"... If loneliness meant world acclaim / Everyone would know my name / I'd be a legend in my time ..."

The song was recorded by Ronnie Milsap in 1974 as the lead single from his album "A Legend in My Time", which hit
# 1 in 1975, his third # 1. Frequently covered, other versions have been recorded by Connie Francis, Roy Orbison for
his 1961 album "Lonely and Blue" and a second version for his 1967 tribute album to Gibson, "Roy Orbison Sings Don Gibson", Johnny Cash for his album "American V: A Hundred Highways", Waylon Jennings, B.B. King, a live version by Tammy Wynette and the Good Guys and by Sammy Davis Jr. reaching #29 in the Adult Contemporary chart in 1973, among others.

Gibson recorded 23 Top 10 hits from 1956 to 1974. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters HoF in 1983 and (somewhat tardily) elected to the Country Music HoF in 2001, 2 years before his death in 2003, age 75, after a decade
of poor health. He was survived by his good wife of 34 years, who had rescued his career and most probably saved him from a much earlier death. Ironically (and happily, I suppose), the lonesome, socially reclusive man who sang songs of loneliness, isolation and lost love, did not die a lonely man.

And to finish up, as we've seen, Don Gibson provided the great Ray Charles with the biggest hit of his long career, and also Ronnie Milsap with one of his biggest hits - and I don't have to tell you what else they had in common! So in 1983 Ronnie and his hero Ray famously came together for a memorable performance for the 25th anniversary of the CMA Awards, held at Constitutional Hall, Washington, DC with Pres. Ronald Reagan attending. In homage to Don Gibson,
they played a medley of 3 Gibson songs - which included, naturally, 'I Can't Stop Loving You' and '(I'd Be) A Legend
in My Time', for which they each had such big hits, as well as 'Oh Lonesome Me'. Introduced by Roy Acuff (see posts #147-149), the performance brought the house down -


I shall return with the final artist who broke through big time in the 1950's - and while I've now covered a few legends e.g. Bob Wills, Hank Williams, Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash, this one may outrank them all (except Hank Williams, of course). It could take me a while.
 

Professor Knowall

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Before I get to my next artist - and a legend that rivals Hank Williams - I thought I'd just rehash and set out a little, albeit in brief outline, background info on what was happening in the background at the stage where this history is at - which is now 1958/59.

If you've followed this through, while I've covered the inception and rise of bluegrass and also western music, for the most part since the end of WW2 to 1956, country music was mostly dominated by baroom honky tonk music, which was aimed at a rural and/or working class audience, and drunks and the lonely and depressed etc, singing about real life problems like girlfriend or marriage break-ups, cheating, adultery and alcoholism - it was music for adults, not so much (with some exceptions) for teenagers. It generally adhered to traditional country accompiament of guitar, steel guitar (developed further to the pedal steel guitar), fiddles and slap bass, though drums came to the fore in the fifties.

This was a great period of "pure" country music, before the rise of youth oriented rock'n'roll on one side, and the suburban middle class pop influence on the other. Honky tonk artists covered here are Ernest Tubb, Al Dexter, Red
Foley, Tex Ritter, Merle Travis, Eddy Arnold, Moon Mullican, Hank Snow, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Carl Smith,
Hank Thompson, Kitty Wells, Webb Pierce, Jean Shepard, Faron Young and Ray Price.

Now some of these artists honkytonkers started experimenting with a stronger beat sound, being influenced (and in turn influencing) R&B. Examples given here were Red Foley, Hank Williams (see his very first 1946 hit), Tenessee Ford, Moon Mullican (very much so), Carl Smith, Hank Thompson and Webb Pierce. Then in 1956, rock'n'roll broke through bigtime to dominate the country charts (remember that rock'n'roll at this stage was still mainly Southern and working class youth music). So the history swung to Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Sanford Clark, Charlie Feathers and
Jerry Lee Lewis.

Then we looked at the "fightback" against the rock'n'roll dominance - though it wasn't really a war as such, but more a case of major record companies happy to sign up the young hot rockers (e.g. RCA with Elvis), to corner the teenage market and then looking to appeal to new suburban markets for the more adult country music by introducing the "Nashville Sound", with it's smoother, sophisticated, pop-country production , mainly pioneered by Chet Atkins (and headlined by great vocalists like Jim Reeves, Don Gibson, Eddy Arnold and Patsy Cline), often dispensing with the traditional steel guitar and fiddles for lush strings and backing vocals.

The "Nashville Sound" worked - it was hugely successful in its aims of reaching new suburban markets that previously would never have even heard country music - albeit the country music purists of the time decried that it was not "real" country but a bastardised pop version of country. They were basically right, but the music sold and that's all that really mattered - and in the decades since, the "Nashville Sound" became so embedded into country music, it's now seen as
just another form of traditional country - and by today's loose standards, it definitely is.

But another element in the success of the Nashville Sound in wresting the chart domination from rock'n'roll back to
more traditional country music was the death of rock'n'roll - heavily wounded in 1958, it was killed off altogether in
1959. Wait! What!! Whaddya mean? Rock'n'roll lived on! Well, that's what I've always believed, but i've met and debated (i.e. drunkenly argued) with those (in the deep American South) who insist rock'n'roll actually died altogether in 1959 and what followed after were just pop variants with a rock & roll influence. Ultimately I think their definition of what is "real rock & roll" to be much too narrow, so I don't agree with them - but they do have a point in that the "pure" original R&R (with it's southern country and R&B roots) was effectively killed off in 1959, so that pop and country music reigned again - for the next half decade and what followed in the sixties was distinctly different and more pop oriented.

As for the demise of the original rock'n'roll that was so dominant in 1956-1957, it started with a series of events in 1958. Early that year, Little Richard temporarily retired from playing rock music to join the ministry. Next came the messy scandal of Jerry Lee Lewis taking his new wife, who also happened to be his 13-year-old cousin (all quite legal and not even unusual back then in the Deep South) with him on his tour of England, causing the English press to explode, which in turn caused the American mainstream liberal establishment press to turn against him. Chuck Berry was then caught illegally taking a 14 year old girl across the border (the first of many such sex scandals for him). Then Elvis was drafted into the Army that July 1958 and shipped off to Germany for 2 years (many still claim it was all part of a government conspiracy to suppress R&R - and they could be right). This carried over into 1959, which saw the tragic deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper in a plane crash while on tour in Iowa. This pretty much left only the Everly Brothers and Eddie Cochran as legit rock artists as of early 1959. Sadly Eddie was killed in a car crash in England in 1960.

Finally, and pretty much the last nail in the coffin, there was the payola scandal of 1959, which ruined famed dj Alan Freed’s career, (he, based in Cleveland, being most influential in spreading R&R to the northern industrial cities) and
made other DJs reticent to play rock for a while. With not just conservative Christians, but liberal intellectuals, civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jnr all condemning rock and roll, blacks deserting R&R for the new Soul Music and R&R being totally derided as "kids music" at virtually all colleges and universities, where folk music and jazz (the mid 1950's to the early 1960's, with Miles Davis and John Coltrane at their creative peak, was a brilliant era for jazz) reigned supreme, saw rock'n'roll consigned to the fringes - and with a much softer edge - for some years until the British pop-beat "invasion" of 1964.

Anyway, enough of this. I'll return next time (again it might be a little while) back in 1959 with a Texan legend who was neither rock or pop like - just straight out country, and often regarded as the finest specifically "country" voice of them all - and one whose "country song" lifestyle topped all the others.
 
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Professor Knowall

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"If you’re going to sing a country song, you’ve got to have lived it yourself". So said our latest artist, and man, did he
live up to that mantra! Books have been written about his life, and if all the stories are to be believed, he could outdrink every other alcoholic country singer (and, if you've followed this history, there's been more than a few described so far), snorted enough cocaine to kill a horse, could handle himself in a barroom brawl even better than Lefty Frizzell and had more women troubles than Hank Williams. But, influenced by Roy Acuff, Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell, he had a voice for country music like no other - the greatest of all honky tonk singers but also a victim of its lifestyle.

The youngest of 8 children, George Jones was born in 1931 in the rough'n'tumble oilfields of East Texas, his father an itinerant truck driver, oil-field worker and a no-good violent drunkard, his mother a long-suffering teetotalling preachers daughter who coldly endured her husband. It was at her side, in church, that Jones learned to sing. But it was his father who gave him his first guitar, and introduced him to the wild wicked ways of the Texan oilfield honkytonks, which (as already mentioned several times in this history) were loud, violent and even downright dangerous places, where the
liquor flowed copiously, fists flew frequently, gunfights were not unknown - and were also the birthplace of honky tonk country music.

His Sunday school teacher taught Jones how to play his guitar. Jones recalled - "I just fell in love with it and spent
all my time with the guitar.
” On Saturday night radio there was the Grand Ole Opry, starring Roy Acuff. George was mesmerized by Acuff’s high nasal style, which became an indelible influence on his own singing. “My daddy always
got my sister and me to sing when I was a kid,
” Jones said. These were not pleasant memories for George or his
sister, as they were roused from sleep by their father when he came home drunk late at night, alone or with his
buddies, demanding entertainment and threatening violence if he didn't get it. The resentment George harbored
for his father’s drunken brutishness grew more intense as he was forced to busk outside whichever bar his father
was at, with the tips he earned taken by his father for drinking money. It's a wonder young George wasn't turned
off music - or alcohol - forever. But, in both cases, the exact opposite was the case.

At 16, in 1947, he ran away to Jasper, Texas, where he was hired to sing at a local radio station and he soon had his
own show. A fellow dj, noting his close-set eyes and upturned nose, nicknamed him ‘The Possum’. Playing local beer
halls and honky tonks, Jones married his first wife in 1950 when he was 19 years old. The marriage collapsed within
a year, his wife, 6 months pregnant, citing his violent temper and addiction to alcohol as the grounds for divorce. After being jailed twice for failing to meet child support payments, he enlisted in the marines at the end of 1951 to avoid a
third sentence. After being demobbed in 1953, Jones immediately began performing again.

Jones was soon discovered by record producer Pappy Daily, the co-owner of Starday Records, a new Texas label, who, impressed with Jones' potential, signed him up. After his first four singles flopped, Jones released 'Why, Baby, Why', a honky tonk complaint of a controlling woman, in 1955. The single became his first hit, peaking at # 4, its momentum halted by a cover version by established star, Webb Pierce, that hit # 1, while a pop version by Pat Boone reached # 3, thus ensuring good song-writing royalties for Jones.

However, I'm more impressed with his third top 10 follow up hit of 1956 'Just One More', which reached # 3. At this stage, Jones is still singing "Hank Williams style", his own style still a work in progress (you will have to wait until tomorrow to hear Jones at his fully matured best), and although this early old school honky tonk number is usually now overlooked, its theme of alcohol as a balm to a lost love was something Jones already knew all about, having developed a strong liking for whiskey and beer more than he should from his mid teens, and had already divorced (though he soon married another 18 year old teen) -
"... I've been sitting here so long / Just remembering that you are gone / Well, one more drink of wine /
Then if you're still on my mind / One drink, just one more, and then another
..."


After coming close several times, Jones scored his first career # 1 hit in 1959, with this rollicking track, written by the Big Bopper, who was killed in a plane crash the week before Jones recorded the song. Somewhat ironically, Jones admitted in his 1997 autobiography that he was so intoxicated during the recording session for the track that it took him 83 takes to record his vocals. The song recklessly celebrates the eye-buggin' moonshine of his feds-dodging pappy with rubbery hiccups, sloshed lip splutters, and winded whooshes, delivering the title in a comic baritone. Lyrically, the Big Bopper composition is little more than a novelty tune, but Jones sounded as if he was having the time of his life in 1959 with the story of that magic liquid that his “Pappy” made back in the hills. The tricky upright bass intro that spurs the galloping rhythm onward sounds even more impressive when you learn that bassist Buddy Killen had already worn his fingertips bloody playing it 82 other times that day, waiting for the liquored-up singer to finally spit out an acceptable take. Given it's basically a novelty song, I've settled on a live concert video from 1987


Many of Jones’ top performances strike a balance between a man hell-bent on doing things the way he wants them
done, and someone who is mindful of the repercussions of it all, right down to the forfeiture of a happy home life. In 1960, Jones, flush with newfound prosperity, wrote a song called 'The Window Up Above'. Of all the songs he wrote, it remained his favorite. “I wrote it in about 20 minutes,” he said. “I just came in off the road, about 8 in the morning while breakfast was being fixed. I just sat down in the den, picked up the guitar, it was as simple as that. Sometimes it’s hard to even figure where the ideas come from.” For Jones, 'The Window Up Above' seemed to issue directly from a lifelong insecurity and ambivalence, a deep-rooted fear of what lurked beneath the dream of hearth and home and happiness. The song remained on the charts for more than 8 months. Jones added the right touch of sadness on this 1960 # 2 gem that continues to be one of the linchpins of honky-tonk music everywhere. -
"I've been living a new way / Of life that I love so
But I can see the clouds are gathering / And the storm will wreck our home
..."


Early on in his recording career, Jones was told to quit trying to sound like his heroes, such as Roy Acuff and Hank Williams. By the 1961 release of this # 1 hit, you can tell he was listening. Sung in a lower register than many of his ballads to that point, Jones gives one of his more reflective early vocals on this one that just about defined the territory
he carved out as his own in the years ahead. 'Window Up Above' had hinted at the same direction, but on 'Tender Years' the song, the production, and the performance came together in a statement of soon-to-be classic George Jones. Here, his singing voice, which so far had been high and nasal, deepened. His restrained delivery and the smoother Nashville Sound production (complete with muted accompaniment and a vocal chorus) produced a smoother but still expressive George Jones. 'Tender Years' spent 7 weeks at # 1 and a whopping 32 weeks on the charts -


Jack Clement’s lyrics provided the ultimate showcase for Jones in 1962. According to legendary radio personality Ralph Emery, Jones’ heartfelt version of this one was one of Ray Charles’ all-time favorite records. It’s easy to understand why with this # 3 hit -


Tomorrow as we move through the sixties, we'll see the fully formed George Jones voice and style at its best.
 

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George Jones was just about every country singer’s favorite country singer. For the old-timers and young bloods alike, his voice possessed a quality others could only envy and emulate. While he and his idol, Hank Williams, have both affected generations with that plaintive veracity of voice that set them apart, Jones had an additional gift - a voice of exceptional range, natural elegance, and lucent tone, gliding toward high tenor, plunging toward deep bass, investing his love songs with a tragic gravity and inflaming his celebrations of the honky-tonk ethos with the hellfire of abandon. Emmylou Harris once said, “When you hear George Jones sing, you are hearing a man who takes a song and makes it a work of art - always. He has a remarkable voice that flows out of him effortlessly, and quietly, but with an edge that comes from
the stormy part of the heart".


So on George Jones' singing ability, you can always ignore my unqualified opinion, but Roy Acuff, who was Jones’s earliest childhood singing idol, lived to say, “I would give anything if I could sing like George Jones.” Waylon Jennings said much the same - “If we could all sound like we wanted to, we’d all sound like George Jones.” Though Roy Acuff was a symbol of country music’s conservative old guard, while Jennings spearheaded "The Outlaws" movement, their esteem for Jones was shared by the mavericks who took their place. Ricky Van Shelton said, “George puts so much emotion, so much feeling into his songs, and that’s what it’s all about. I just can’t imagine what country music would have been like without George Jones.” For Randy Travis, “It’s almost like he’s lived every minute of every word that he sings.” Merle Haggard wrote - "His voice was like a Stradivarius violin: one of the greatest instruments ever made. He could interpret any given set of words better than anybody I’ve ever heard. You’d have to go back to Hank Williams to compare, and he may have outdone even him. Someone asked me recently, “How did he do it?” George Jones went to the grave with that secret".

In 1963, Jones’s father was committed to the alcoholics ward of a state asylum in Texas. In 1967, the year his father
died, Jones himself entered a neurological hospital for treatment for his own drinking. His second marriage was coming apart for the same reason as his first, his wife citing whiskey as the cause of the breach. Soon after his release from the hospital, George accused his wife of having an affair with a businessman then shot the bloke in the arse with birdshot. It was witnessed by a few but no-one reported it to the police. They were divorced in 1968. Jones moved to Nashville; his wife stayed in Texas and married the birdshot-arse filled businessman.

Possum the footloose honky-tonker makes way for Jones the master of barroom heartbreak. Jones scored one of the definitive hits of his career with 'She Thinks I Still Care', telling the story of a man who can't get over his lost love but is
in denial about it. It became Jones' third chart-topping song, spending 6 weeks at # 1 in 1962. Just because he can't stop talking about her or thinking about her or calling her or lurking around the same old places doesn't mean he's hung up on her, but the sadness that undercuts his stoic protests every time he holds onto a vowel a little too long comes to a head on the bridge, where he wrings sheer pathos out of "foolish" and "idea." He plays the song in a deliberate naive manner
- until the final verse, when it’s apparent to everyone, even the singer, that his ex left a wound that isn’t going away anytime soon. Just think, 'She Thinks I Still Care' is as sad as some lives get. Jones was just warming up with this
masterful performance of country music -


Jones was nearly a decade into his career when he released 'The Race Is On'. Jones recorded it and released it as the
first single from the album of the same name. It reached # 3 in 1964 and later became one of Jones's biggest hits and remained a concert staple throughout his long career. As it's not such a serious song, but just a rollicking number like "White Lightning", here's a live concert version from 29 years later, in 1993 -


This 1968 # 2 hit 'When The Grass Grows Over Me' was similar in theme to Jones' biggest ever hit (still to come) but it was totally in the first-person narrative and is perhaps the darkest Jones ever went, the lyrics such as "... I’ll be over you, when you’re standing over me..." was pure sadness and brilliance. Jones was with Musicor Records at this stage, whose sound quality wasn't always the best, hence I've chosen another live video, this time from 1969 -


'A Good Year For The Roses' was Jones' last major hit for Musicor Records in 1971, where he spent 6 successful years (despite his chronic alcoholism frequently interfering with his output) before teaming up with producer Billy Sherrill. By now, Jones' singing style had evolved from the full-throated, high lonesome sound of Hank Williams and Roy Acuff to the more refined, subtle style of Lefty Frizzell. Jones acknowledged the fellow Texan's influence on his idiosyncratic phrasing: "I got that from Lefty. He always made five syllables out of one word". Jones was in career-defining mode, beautifully delivering these lyrics (from an era when lyrics about everyday real life experiences were still meaningfully written -
and meanginfully sung) about a stale couple who had taken the term “going through the motions” to a new high -
"... After three full years of marriage, it's the first time that you haven't made the bed
I guess the reason we're not talkin', there's so little left to say we haven't said
While a million thoughts go racin' through my mind, I find I haven't said a word
From the bedroom the familiar sound of one baby's crying goes unheard
..."


Billy Sherrill of Epic Records pushed Jones to new vocal heights in the studio. Nowhere is that more apparent than this 1972 classic 'A Picture Of Me Without You' that Norro Wilson and George Richey specifically wrote for Jones with his voice. Interestingly and ironically enough, just a few years later, Richey would be feeling these lyrics as he married … Jones' beloved and regretted ex, Tammy Wynette. Again, as Jone's voice strength had extraordinary longevity, I've opted for
a live 1993 concert version -
"... If you've watched as the heart of a child breaks in two / Then you've seen a picture of me without you ..." -


Tomorrow will cover the sometimes triumphant but too often turbulent, torturous and even tragic, George Jones & Tammy Wynette (or "Mr & Mrs Country Music") era - but through it all, and maybe even because of it all, Jones produced some of the most classic country singing ever.
 
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Professor Knowall

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Jones' notorious binge drinking, along with the usual use of amphetamines on the road, caught up to him in 1967, and
he was admitted into a hospital for treatment for his alcoholism. Jones went to extreme lengths for a drink if the thirst was on him. One of the more famous drinking stories occurred while he was married to his second wife Shirley Corler,
and living in a rural retreat. Shirley made it physically impossible for him to travel to Beaumont, 14 km's away, to buy liquor. Because Jones wouldn't walk that far, she hid the keys to all their cars before leaving - but overlooked the ride on lawn mower. Upset, Jones walked to the window, looked out over his property and, as per his memoir - "There, gleaming in the glow, was that ten-horsepower rotary engine under a seat. A key glistening in the ignition. I imagine the top speed for that old mower was 5 miles per hour. It might have taken an hour and a half or more for me to get to the liquor store, but get there I did." Years later Jones comically mocked the incident by making a cameo in the video for 'All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight' by Hank Williams Jr.

In 1966, 2 years before his second divorce, George had met an ambitious young hairdresser from Mississippi who had recently arrived in Nashville seeking (as one does) fame and fortune - Tammy Wynette. By 1968 she was a huge star, possessing the strongest female voice in America and with 4 # 1 hits of her own. One night Jones intervened in an argument between Tammy and her second husband, songwriter Don Chapel. The couple had not been married long,
nor would they be, for Jones' drunken profession of love for Tammy during the course of that angry night sealed their breakup. As if in public celebration of their romance, Tammy’s recording of 'Stand By Your Man' (later famously covered
by Sticks Kernaghan in Lygon St) went to # 1, and Jones soon responded with 'I’ll Share My World With You'. Combining their shows, they took to the road together, and married in 1969.

George and Tammy moved to Florida, where, in 1970, Tammy gave birth to a daughter. But once again, hearth and home were not enough, and it seemed George was lost without his longtime producer and mentor, Pappy Daily, whose influence over Jones had been pushed aside by Tammy. Not long after the birth of Tamala, in the throes of a long and violent binge, Jones was straitjacketed and committed to a padded cell, where he was kept to detoxify for 10 days and then released with a prescription for Librium.

They returned to Nashville and bought a house in the exclusive section of town. In some of the rooms of their new
home, they "tastefully" put shag carpeting on the ceiling. "Mr. and Mrs. Country Music" began recording some of the
most celebrated husband-and-wife duets in American music history. In 'We're Gonna Hold On', a # 1 in 1973, the verses acknowledge the difficulty of commitment, the chorus voicing a grasping desperation that seems not entirely healthy. As the pair flawlessly synchronized their harmony, it's hard not to lament the sad gap between Jones' art and life, that such
a steady, in sync duet partner was such a shitty husband (and with her own substance abuse problems, she wasn't much better as a wife - but on stage they were magnetic, the two best voices in the nation together.)

I've skipped some big hits, including multiple # 1 hits and moved on to 1974, where we have two of the best. Here is the first of these immense 1974 # 1 hits. Like a morbid show spruiker, Jones opens with "Step right up / Come on in," and then flaunts his historic gift for immersing himself in sadness and heartbreak while simultaneously viewing it from an eerie distance. 'The Grand Tour', the song of a "lonely house", is a song I still listen to every now and then simply because it really is that good. Every pain-drenched syllable reveals it’s placement here. Jones' troubled marriage to fellow country star Tammy Wynette was falling apart (due to his out of control alcoholism) by the time he recorded this deeply personal song that tells the story of a previously happy marriage ending in bitter divorce. It proved prescient, as the couple ended their marriage the following year (and in a truly bizarre twist, Wynette went on to marry George Richey, who co-wrote 'The Grand Tour'). This honky tonk classic is a longtime favorite of Jones' fiercely ever loyal fan base - and its final few lines can still send a bone-cold chill and a tear to those who can fully relate to them -
"... I have nothing here to sell you / Just some things that I will tell you / Some things I know will chill you to the bone..."

Jones' second big 1974 # 1 hit soon followed 'The Door', an even bleaker song of martial dissolution and desertion. It was a song that involved the perplexities of his own youth - the lyrics lead not to any understanding but to the plain, painful, inevitable finality and the ultimate abandonment of it all. Perhaps Jones' own experiences of break-ups and tragedies deepened the haunted, and haunting, qualities of his own voice. “To hear that sound, and to know it’s really over,” the chorus for this 1974 hit began. Simple and direct, producer Sherrill added the master touch of a door slamming on the record, which resonates strongly even as it provides the bridge to the climax -


If anyone knew the emotional state that George Jones was in following his divorce from Tammy Wynette, it was…Tammy Wynette. The song is unremittingly bleak, reflecting the dismal relationship that now existed between Jones and Wynette. Two days after he recorded it in December 1974, he left Tammy and they divorced soon after, their property divided, and Jones was left as one of those mournful souls he sang about in 'The Grand Tour.'. The song brims with utter anguish and torment, two essential ingredients in any country song, let alone a George Jones song. His car dies, his wife leaves, he loses at the track, it rains - at times, this song might seem one dead dog away from a parodying country-music cliché.
But the emphasis on the excruciating physical grind of enduring another day, the inexorable trudge of the music, and Jones' calm misery at the eye of the storm elevate it from the generic to the downright existential. And the last line
makes the hopelessness universal -
"These days one barely gets by." Just in case you were pretending you got it any better -


In January 1975, while 'The Door' was at the top of the charts, Tammy filed for divorce. Jones moved to Alabama to
be near his drinking buddy Peanut Montgomery and Peanut’s sister-in-law, Linda Welborn, with whom Jones had already taken up, and their began his long, slow descent to rock-bottom. He signed a management deal with a local hustler who later did time for cocaine trafficking. Jones, who had long indulged in amphetamines and whiskey, soon was addicted to cocaine as well, and though in the spring of 1976 he made a pretense of overcoming his problems and cowrote with Peanut Montgomery a heartfelt song called 'A Drunk Can’t Be a Man', his addictions worsened and he was sued for drunkenly assaulting two women in Nashville.

Jones' tumultuous marriage to Wynette resulted in a number of hit duets, among them 'We’re Gonna Hold On' and 'Take Me'. Ironically, the now-divorced couple scored one of their biggest hits together In 1976 with 'Golden Ring'. The song is about a man who proposed to his girlfriend with a simple pawnshop golden ring and how their journey together from that moment on ended with the ring making its way back to the pawnshop. You meet the couple so in love but then get torn apart by money problems with the wife throwing her "golden ring" to the floor of their small two bedroom apartment
after declaring she "doesn’t love him anymore". "Golden ring with one tiny little stone, shining ring now at last it’s
found a home
,” they sing at the start of the song - only to conclude the ring’s journey with “Golden ring with one
tiny little stone, cast aside like the love that’s dead and gone".
You might observe a couple of things going on
between this divorced duo in the last 30 seconds or so of this live version -


'Bartender's Blues' was written by James Taylor and first released on his 1977 album JT. It was also released as the
B-side of the lead single from JT, 'Handy Man'. However, Taylor, for all his talent, was no country singer and it was Jones that made it his own, or, as music critic Bill Janovitz, wrote "Jones shows how it should be done" (given Jones' extensive experience of bars, combined with his mastery of expression, that ain't so surprising) and praised the production of Jones' rendition, and his vocal performance, especially the "heart-wrenching" final verse. The song was released in the first week of 1978 and stayed on the charts for 14 weeks, peaking at # 6, but has lived on when other more popular songs of the time are now long forgotten -


It was Jones' first top 10 single in 2 years, his chronic alcoholism and now a copious cocaine addiction now seriously impairing his career and even imperilling his life - though strangely not really affecting his voice, apart from slurring certain words.

The news of Wynette’s brief marriage that year to a local realtor, and her subsequent marriage in the summer of 1978
to songwriter George Richey, further unhinged Jones. “I still love her, and that ain’t gonna change,” he said. During a 9 month period in 1977/78, there were 15 break-ins at the Wynette home (once Tammy discovered the words “s**t” and “pig” scrawled on a mirror and TV screen). In October 1978, she was abducted by a masked gunman, taken to an isolated spot, beaten, nearly strangled with her own panty hose, and finally thrown from the car, bruised, hysterical, and suffering a fractured jaw. Despite much speculation to the contrary, Jones steadfastly denied any involvement in those doings.

On the night after he turned 47, Jones fired a shot at Peanut Montgomery, who had recently quit drinking and found religion. “All right, you son of a b*tch, see if your God can save you now!", he hollered before pulling the trigger and missing (proof of God?). A few weeks later, 6 days after the Wynette kidnapping, Jones, pleading that he was “addicted
to alcohol,” sought mercy from a judge who ordered his arrest for nonpayment of $36,000 in child-support payments due to Tammy. In December, citing more than $1 million in debts, he filed for bankruptcy. Later that month he was arrested on charges of having assaulted and beaten his ex-girlfriend Linda Welborn.

So we leave off with Jones, despite being the greatest country singer at least since Hank Williams died of an OD and
binge alcoholism 25 years earlier, now flat broke, mentally tortured, a long term alcoholic, addicted to cocaine, his behaviour erratic and sometimes appalling, his great career and probably his life, winding down to an end - or so
pretty much everyone, including a self-loathing Jones himself, thought. Tomorrow will feature just one George Jones
song - but what a song!
 
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Professor Knowall

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By February 1979, George Jones was homeless, deranged, and destitute, living in his car in a music row parking lot, barely able to digest the junk food on which he subsisted - apart from whiskey and cocaine. His weight had almost
halved to under 40 kilograms, and his condition was such that it took him more than 2 years to complete "My Very
Special Guests", an album on which Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Elvis Costello, and other famous fans came to his
vocal aid and support. Jones became notorious for his drunken, intoxicated rampages, often involving both drugs and shotguns. He simply disappeared for days at a time and began missing a substantial amount of concerts - in 1979 alone, he missed 54 shows, which earned him a popular new nickname "No-Show Jones".

In December 1979 soon after the album was released, Jones, at the end of his tether and told by a doctor he would be dead within a year if he continued as he was, entered Hillcrest Psychiatric Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. Upon his release in January 1980, the very first thing he did was pick up a carton of beer. At the end of the month, after a morning of drinking beer and snorting a prodigious quantity of cocaine (some commented that the amount of cocaine he consumed would've killed anyone else), he held a press conference at which he announced his newfound sobriety, saying - “I read the Bible a lot while undergoing treatment. Now I can see all the way down the highway.” In fact, nothing had changed - except that 7 days later, he managed to deliver one of the greatest recordings in American popular (not just country) music history - one I rate as the second greatest country song of all time, behind only Hank Williams' 'I'm So Lonesome
I Could Cry' (see post # 214), and it's one of the top 3 in just about every worthwhile "greatest country song of all time" list I've seen - and often rated # 1. Now there's a story behind all this - and it's a good one. I won't include spoilers of the song itself in case you haven't heard it - or at least haven't really listened to the lyrics.

The song itself was written by the leading Nashville songwriting pair, Bobby Braddock with Curly Putnam who had already scored major songwriting success with Tammy Wynette's hit song 'D-I-V-O-R-C-E.' Contrary to what's widely believed, it wasn't initially written specifically with Jones in mind - in fact it was written in 1978 and first recorded by Johnny Russell in 1979 - but it went mostly unnoticed, Russell being a better song-writer than singer - and this song needed a great voice (and ultimately an extra verse) to make it a great song.

Luckily, the legendary producer Billy Sherrill was out scouting material for Jones’ next album, when he came upon the song. Sherrill liked the song, and considered that with Jones' unique vocal ability, it could be something special, but he thought it needed something more and badgered the songwriters for an extra verse. That turned out to be the spoken-word middle section. With that, Sherrill was now itching for Jones to record 'He Stopped Loving Her Today', convinced Jones could make it an all time classic. But there was a problem - Jones hated the song when he first heard it.

Maybe Jones was so hesitant to record the song because by 1980, he had all but destroyed his personal and professional life with substance abuse. He didn't need to record another sad country song - he was living one. At that point, his singles were dull in comparison to his previous hits and he hadn't had a # 1 for 6 years - an unprecedented dry run for the nation's biggest and best country music star - but also its biggest drunk. As much as Sherrill had a vision of it being a megahit, Jones just couldn't (or wouldn't) see it so. In Bob Allen's biography "George Jones: The Life and Times of a Honky Tonk Legend" Jones "thought it was too long, too sad, too depressing and that nobody would ever play it ... He hated the melody and wouldn't learn it."

Eventually, lacking other choices, Jones agreed to record the now infamous song. He was still reeling from hurdles he had faced in his personal life, and it was difficult for him to perform. He repeatedly confused it with Kris Kristofferson's 'Help Me Make It Through the Night,' which he had somehow convinced himself was his own thought-up melody. As the lyrics of both songs were written to the same metre, Kristofferson's melody actually worked (and vice versa) and Jones insisted it was a better melody - only to have Sherrill witheringly reply - "Yeah, and I'm sure Kristofferson would agree with you - because it's his ******* melody for his ******* song!".

Finally, Jones was able to make it all the way through the song (with the correct melody) but the first cut was totally unimpressive - his voice was flat and unemotional. All those in the studio could tell Jones didn't care for the song or feel it's story - it was totally uninspired. Then, just before the second take, an odd occurrence took place that changed the atmosphere completely. By some bizarre coincidence, at that moment, Tammy Wynette had unexpectedly turned up with her new husband, just to observe. In a moment of genius, Sherrill admitted Tammy into the control box where Jones could observe her - but not her husband. Jones watched as Tammy entered the dimly lit control room and sat down next to Sherrill, her face illuminated by a single light above. Jones seemed riveted by the sight of Tammy and when he sang the song again he never once took his eyes off her. It was if he was singing every word just for her and on that second take, Jones sang with enormous power and heart-wringing emotion, delivering an unforgettable, brilliant and unequaled performance.

There's more - throughout his career, Jones always had the amazing ability to sing perfectly when high on booze and drugs but he couldn't talk without slurring. Sure enough, he slurred the lyrics during the tune's spoken word bridge, and eventually they gave up after more than 30 takes. Again, Sherrill worked his magic. Realising that Jones didn't slur every single word on any of the takes, he cut and spliced (literally back then, using scissors and tape) the unslurred words from the 30+ takes into one seamless whole - this was cutting-edge (literally) technology in its day and was a brilliant success, making the track sound how it does today - like a mournful, personal ballad marked with Jones' bourbon-laced, grizzled voice.

By now, Sherrill knew the song, as delivered by Jones, would be a classic. But he was determined to make it even greater still, so after the session wrapped, he went to work on the song, bathing it in production techniques that had undeniable flair yet weren't invasive. There’s the lonely harmonica blowing through the early verses, followed up by a subtle string bed and the crying steel guitar. In the chorus, the strings come alive and soar to a crescendo as Jones delivers the refrain in the midst of it all, all of it serving to heighten the emotional impact.

I could say a lot about the song's brilliant lyrics, but I won't - that would spoil it for those who haven't heard it (except to say it's a story told by a bloke about a long troubled mate of his) but with the lyrics, Jones' powerful voice and Sherrill's production, this adds up to a timeless country classic and arguably the very best, one that has stood the test of time. Here it is -


'He Stopped Loving Her Today', became Jones' first # 1 single in 6 years and went on to become by far his biggest ever hit, one of the biggest in country music history. The critics, most of whom had written Jones off as a tragic drunken junkie heading to an early grave, were stunned by Jones' remarkable, riveting, delivery. The record revived his dying career, bringing him 3 CMA awards, winning song of the year for 1980 - and then again in 1981, Grammies for best song and best male vocal performance and in 2009 was selected by the Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Board. It has been named greatest country song of all time on various media lists. The only thing that can match its lofty status might be the sheer unlikeliness of the circumstances behind the song’s creation and recording.

Of course, when the recording was finished, Jones stubbornly still didn’t have high hopes. In his autobiography "I Lived To Tell It All", he wrote, “I looked Billy square in the eye and said, ‘Nobody will buy that morbid son of a b*tch.’” (Sherrill also told the same story). Of course, the song’s success changed his tune. “To put it simply I was back on top,” he wrote. “Just that quickly. I don’t want to belabor this comparison, but a four-decade career was salvaged by a three-minute song.”

Jones spectacular career resuscitation did little, at first, to stay the course of his madness. There's more on Jones tomorrow as he struggles to get on top of his dark side, even as he is the undisputed champion of traditional honky tonk country music against the twin assaults of pop-country on one flank and country rock on the other.
 

Professor Knowall

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With the sudden, and wildly successful, revival of George Jones' career provided by the stunning 'He Stopped Loving
Her Today' in 1980, all of his problems were solved. Of course, that wasn't true. He was still hopelessly addicted to both alcohol and cocaine - the only very slight silver lining is that it's thought the alcohol in his bloodstream actually helped to dilute the effects of his cocaine consumption!

He was hospitalized twice again, and twice again he proclaimed the light. “The world will see a big difference in me,” he announced in 1982. A few weeks later, he was arrested in a drunken rage near Franklin, Tennessee. He declared his sobriety yet again, but a headline in the San Antonio News that summer declared otherwise: ‘DRUNK’ SINGER CYCLES OFF WITH GIRLFRIEND, TEQUILA'.

The girlfriend was Nancy Sepulveda, a 34-year-old divorcée from Louisiana, who neither drank nor took drugs and found herself lost and confused in the vortex of George’s self-destruction. When she had first met him, in 1981, he had not seemed all that far gone. “He was drinking,” she said, “but he was fun to be around. It wasn’t love at first sight or anything like that. But I saw what a good person he was, deep down, and I couldn’t help caring for him. He needed somebody, something, so bad.” Nancy, it seems, had a natural mothering instinct - and Jones emotionally needed someone exactly like that - someone to mother him. She stuck by him, as none of the others had, basically like a
mother figure neither threatening nor hectoring, condoning nor condemning.

Nancy was surprised to see that quitting cocaine gave George little trouble. The booze, however, was a different matter. His mind and body screamed for it, and when he started drinking heavily in 1983, it seemed as if his recent sobriety had been but a last deep breath before going under for good. Rampaging through Alabama, suffering from malnutrition and again beset by madness, he agan ended up in a straightjacket at Hillcrest Psychiatric Hospital. Physicians told Nancy that he was close to death and that any further drinking would be his end.

Released from Hillcrest in 1984, Jones, at age of 52, performed his first stone-cold-sober show in his life. Nancy recalled - “It was terrible. He was like a scared puppy. ‘I can’t do it,’ he said. ‘I can’t go on.’ He was begging and breaking down and dying for a drink. And when he got out there on that stage, and after the first song, he looked out to me in the audience, and he seemed like such a poor, lost, wounded soul that I burst into tears. But he made it through that show, and he
has not taken a drink since then
" - well that was sourced from an interview with "The Texan Monthly" magazine from
July 1994. In fact, Jones soon after that interview went on to another big bender and several more over the next decade, but for the most part, Nancy kept him in order and showing up to his shows, where he even sang a self-mocking song called 'They Call Me No-Show Jones' as the opening song.

Through all this, Jones remained the undisputed king of country music, his voice as good - some say even better - as ever, so let's listen to his 1980's output, with songs with themes that he sung from first hand experience -

George wakes up in a bar, looks in the men's-room mirror, and doesn't recognize the ancient zombie glaring back at him. The song 'I've Aged 20 Years in 5', from his first 1980 album "I Am What I Am", after the release of 'He Stopped Loving Her Today' follows the standard arc of an alcoholic - carefree younger days, impinging darkness, total loss, moment of clarity, and chin-up final verse, where Jones pledges to "erase 20 years in 5". But that lonesome harmonica floating in
the background sounds less than reassuring, and like a lot of enthusiastic newcomers to sobriety, Jones would go on to struggle with his addiction far longer than 5 years -


The eternal beauty of a George Jones song was that he was stating the truth - no matter if it made him look worse for wear. The 1981 # 8 hit 'If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)' found the singer seemingly still in mourning over a past relationship, knowing he needed to leave his demons behind him - but doubting his own ability to do do. In concert at the time, he often replaced “Her” with “Tammy,” much to the crowd’s delight -


Jones hit the charts again in 1983 with a song co-written and originally recorded by Merle Haggard. The pair had previously collaborated in 1982, on both 'Yesterday’s Wine' and 'C.C. Waterback', but when Jones' producer, Sherrill,
found 'I Always Get Lucky With You', he initially didn't tell Jones it was a Haggard song, since the friends had recently fallen out. They eventually reconciled their differences, and Jones cut the song. They later paired up again in 2006 for
an album titled 'Kickin' Out the Footlights'. This is a more optimistic song than the previous few -


Jones was well into his third decade as a country hitmaker, the top of the crop, when he released the album "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes", which also scored a huge hit with its title song. But the fun, uptempo 'The One I Loved Back Then' (aka 'The Corvette Song') with its classic line - "She was hotter than a two-dollar pistol" gets the nod to be selected here - a reminder that Jones didn't just sing of sadness, loss, misery and heartbreak but could belt out a rollicking good-time number just as well and it soon became a staple of his now legendary concerts -


Jones continued to be a presence at radio throughout the 1980s (a time when country music radio stations actually
still played real country music - and Nashville still mainly recorded real country music) and perhaps one of his most underrated was this gem 'Wine Colored Roses, a top 10 hit from 1986 about a man who had a rather unique way of communicating that he still had his demons. A great hook, and still ranks as one of the most haunting George Jones performances out there -


So here we have another country great whose career, and life, was seemingly saved by the right woman (other examples include Johnny Cash, Don Gibson and Waylon Jennings) - but in Jones' case, he very much found a mother figure. Despite his long history of alcoholism (sometimes very severe), amphetamine and cocaine addiction, his voice somehow retained amazing strength and timbre, his singing ability hardly all that diminished as he aged into his sixties. Finally off the drugs and grog (well except for occasional relapses), he also became a reliable (and enourmously popular) concert performer by the late 1980's - and that's where we'll leave off today, but with more to come tomorrow from country music's greatest legend since Hank Williams, as we move into the 1990's and the final stages of his incredible career.
 

Professor Knowall

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As we have seen, by most accounts, George Jones was the finest vocalist in the recorded history of country music,
though IMO still behind Hank Williams as a singer- songwriter. Remarkably, for someone whose life was plagued with,
and sometimes overwhelmed by, his heavy alcohol and drug addictions, over the course of his long career he rarely left the top of the country charts (unlike, for instance Johnny Cash who, as we saw, had several extended times out of the charts), even as he suffered innumerable personal and professional difficulties. Only Eddy Arnold had more top 10 hits, and Jones always stayed closer to the roots of hardcore country, never straying into pop-country territory and also
hitting the pop charts like top vocalists in Arnold, Marty Robbins or Ray Price. Jones was a straight up 100% "country hero" that Hank iii sang about.

Jones most settled period was from after he married the motherly Nancy, who became his devoted manager (as Jones couldn't manage himself) as well as his doting wife and best friend and almost single-handedly set his career aright. Serving as a catalyst, she has summoned the full support of record company executives for an unusually passive artist, tended to his affairs, helped him clear up his debts and keep his business as well as his life in order. To quote the Texan Monthly July 1994 interview - “... Jones has received the stature due him as an American master, and by helping to keep the world at bay, Nancy has helped him stay alive amid the shadows of demons that still seem to darken his vision. One gets the impression that, were it not for Nancy, George would not be performing today. He seems world-weary and more distanced from his own fame than ever before. ..."

So the (motherly) love that George was looking for, he finally found in the form of his new wife Nancy, whom he married in 1983. By this era in his career, Jones was no longer writing - but it’s hard to imagine him coming up with anything better to describe his own life than with 'The Right Left Hand' from 1987 -


In 'The King Is Gone (And So Are You) from 1989, a once-again-dumped Jones sits alone at home, pours Jim Beam from an Elvis Presley-shaped bottle into a "Flintstone jellybean jar," and has a little chat with Elvis an Fred, who offer ultimately useless advice about the ladies. Then George uncorks a game "yabba dabba doo" to acknowledge the absurdity of his situation, and regretfully accepts the truth of the song title, without deciding whether he's worse off for having no
bourbon or no woman.


Jones continued to have hits well into the later years of his life. He was almost four decades into his career when he released 'I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair', in 1992, which came to be seen as a theme song of sorts for the aging legend - and became another of his popular concert staples. The song featured appearances by a number of younger artists he had influenced, including Vince Gill, Garth Brooks, Travis Tritt and Alan Jackson, and won Jones a CMA Award for Vocal Event of the Year. But rather than feature the recorded version, as it's just a light hearted, fun song I've opted for a live concert version from 1993, where we can see 60 year old George work the crowd into a frenzy and then joined by Tracy Lawrence and Mark Chesnutt on-stage to finish it off -


As Jones aged, failures that once seemed tragic - the relapses, the broken marriages, the cancelled concerts - became viewed as part of an elder statesman's colourful past. If his younger admirers could forgive his flaws, well then, why couldn't Jones forgive himself as well? In 'Wrong’s What I Do Best' from 1993, the lyrics are what makes this so special - a man is looking back over his life, trying to make sense of where he’s been and what he has done. This statement of purpose lopes along so amiably that even when Jones sings, "I'm just trying to find myself before I get too old", you can't help but think the 60-year-old has a pretty good sense of who he is already. Rather than try to strike an over apologetic tone, Jones surmises “maybe it’s not the right way, but wrong’s what I do best.” Yes, I screwed up, and yes, I can admit it. That’s why Jones was - and still is - so loved. Nothing was hidden -


In 1995 he renewed his artistic partnership with ex-wife Wynette for One. It was as good as anything they had made together, and included a nod to new country artists - "I’ve even heard a few/that sound like me and you". Many found it ironical that he outlived Tammy after her tragic 1998 death. His career was interrupted yet again, this time by a near fatal car crash in March 1999, but the same year this remarkable survivor released the album "Cold Hard Truth", regarded by many as his finest ever.

Jones pulled off a late-in-life career resurgence with 'Choices', He could've recorded it at any point in his life, but in
1999, at the age of 67, the vocals about a man looking back on - and taking ownership of - his mistakes had an unusual poignancy to them. The song seemed like it was a deep confession coming from Jones, who, as we've seen, had his full share of big ups and shocking downs and questionable choices in his life and career. Jones won a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for the song, and when he was asked - and refused - to perform an abridged version on the CMA Awards that year, Alan Jackson stopped midway through his own song to perform part of 'Choices' in protest for the man known as “Possum” - who by now was universally recognised, as an absolute legend of country music - despite all his personal flaws -


Jones continued recording new albums and his concert tours into the new millennium, now in his seventies. Tomorrow we will farewell country music's greatest vocalist and a giant of authentic honky tonk music.
 

Professor Knowall

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Jones was a presence on the country charts from the 1950s into the 21st century, and as early as the 1960s he was praised by listeners and fellow musicians as the greatest living country singer. He was never a crossover act - while hard core country fans revered him, pop and rock radio stations ignored him. Unlike most of his contemporaries, Jones ignored whatever was the latest fashion or fad in music, by painstakingly adhering to traditional honky tonk country music. Jones never reached the pop top 40 and almost never had any of his music played on mainstream popular music stations in his career. This meant he was never that popular outside the US, as places like the UK and Australia favoured pop-country or country rock. But by the 1980s, Jones had come to stand for country tradition. Country singers through the decades, from Garth Brooks, Randy Travis, Toby Keith and Tim McGraw, learned licks from him. Johnny Cash, when once asked who was the greatest American singer, quick as a flash answered - "You mean besides George Jones?"

Ironically, without even trying, Jones' unabashed loyalty to strictly country attracted the admiration of musicians and songwriters from a wide range of genres. In an often-quoted tribute, Frank Sinatra immodestly called Jones "the second-best singer in America". In Bob Dylan's autobiography, Chronicles, Dylan wrote he was largely unimpressed by the music on the radio "... outside of George Jones ...". Gram Parsons was an avid George Jones fan and covered Jones' song 'That's All It Took' on his first solo album. After Jones' death, Keith Richards' wrote, "He possessed the most touching voice, the most expressive ways of projecting that beautiful instrument of anyone I can call to mind. You heard his heart in every note he sang". Richards recorded 'Say It's Not You' with Jones for "The Bradley Barn Sessions" in 1994, and recalls in his autobiography hearing him sing for the first time when the Rolling Stones and Jones were on the same show in Texas in 1964 - "They trailed in with tumbleweed following them, as if tumbleweed was their pet. Dust all over the place, a bunch of cowboys, but when George got up, we went whoa, there's a master up there." In the documentary The History of Rock 'N' Roll, Mick Jagger also cites Jones as one of his favorite singers.

John Prine mentions Jones in his song 'Jesus the Missing Years' and "Knockin' on Your Screen Door'. Elliott Smith told an interviewer about his idea of Heaven - "... George Jones would be singing all the time..." Mark Binelli told Rolling Stone that Leonard Cohen asked him - "Have you heard George Jones' last record "Cold Hard Truth"? I love to hear an old guy lay out his situation. He has the best voice in America," and the day Jones died, Cohen performed 'Choices' on stage in Winnipeg as a tribute to the legend. In 2013, Robbie Robertson said - "He was the Ray Charles of country music - the one who could make you cry with his voice...We wouldn't listen to country music, the guys in The Band, but we'd listen to George Jones..."

Jones' career continued unabated in the early 2000's, releasing the album "The Rock: Stone Cold Country" in 2001, a gospel album in 2003, 'Hits I Missed...And One I Didn't' from 2005, where he looked back over the years and picked songs that he originally declined to record, but were hits for the other artists. In 2006 he and Merle Haggard combined again for “Kicking Out the Footlights Again: Jones Sings Haggard, Haggard Sings Jones.” In 2008 he was honored by the Kennedy Center, and in 2012 he received a lifetime achievement Grammy Award.

Jones continued to perform into the 2010's, but after struggling through a concert on April 6 2013 (it's on YouTube and it's hard to watch) he was hospitalized in Nashville 2013 for fever and irregular blood pressure and never left the hospital - he died less than 3 weeks later, at age 81. His funeral was held at Opryland and was said to contain the greatest gathering of major country (and other) musicians than for any other single event. Here is an eulogy (followed by a song) from Charlie Daniels (who himself passed away just 9 months ago), that pretty accurately sums up George Jones unique vocals and his immense influence on country music, the "greatest of the greats" -


I've held back one last song for this farewell - the title track of his 1985 album and a # 3 hit, where Jones pays tribute
to some of the other greats of country music, but also lays down the challenge for the future generations of country musicians to come to continue the grand tradition as he asks the question - 'Whose Gonna Fill Their Shoes?' -

... well, in the case of George Jones, it's pretty clear the answer is ... no-one. For, as Vince Gill said at Jones' funeral - "They don't make those shoes anymore". And sadly, he's right.

OK, with the George Jones epic tribute over (you can probably tell he's about my favourite ever country singer - and provided more stories to tell than any other), I'll be taking an Easter break from the history for at least a week. I may
still check in with other stuff, but that's it. Hope you all have a great Easter (even if your footy team loses by a point) - I'm heading back to the bush now.
 

Professor Knowall

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I'm back into the history - if only for a few days before I have to go off for 2 weeks on the road - and as the history has reached the stage where the fifties, probably country music's greatest decade where so many great singers emerged, has come to a close, I thought I'd mark the occasion by doing something completely different and include some of the best western movies theme songs of that era - even if technically I'm cheating because pretty much all this Hollywood music ain't really country (some of the numbers below are really light classical), but their association with the western genre
and some of the classic western classics is good enough for me to bend (or totally break) the rules of where to draw the line on what's country music.

Actually, this ain't my first Hollywood westerns related post - recall the singing cowboys Gene Autry (posts # 125-126), Roy Rogers (# 154-157), the Rex Ritter intro song 'Do Not Forsake Me' for the classic western "High Noon" (# 180) and then the pop singer Frankie Laine and his series of 1950's western movie intro theme songs (# 255-257).

'Stagecoach' remains one of the most admired and imitated of all Hollywood movies, and brought the "western" genre
to the forefront for the first time and established John Ford as Hollywood's leading director. John Ford's first Western in
13 years (and his first talkie wester), it was also John Wayne's breakthrough role - a role he only got thanks to Ford's stubborn insistence. Famous for its climactic stagecoach chase and the hair-raising horse-jumping scene, performed by the stuntman, Yakima Canutt, it also had the first great western orchestral score (using several traditional 19th century melodies), which earned an academy award. John Ford's 1939 Stagecoach score -


'Red River', released in 1948, is widely considered Howard Hawks’ most-enduring movie. The classic epic has been described as a western version of the film 'Mutiny on the Bounty'. Dimitri Tiomkin wrote a grand symphonic score
for this John Wayne classic, which inspired composers of western soundtracks for decades to come -


A masterpiece of mood and heroics, this second film in John Ford's renowned cavalry trilogy (Fort Apache and Rio Grande are the others) features one of John Wayne's most moving performances as a cavalry officer in his final week of service
on the frontier (with makeup aging him some 25 years), trying to make peace with the native Americans. The ritual of outpost life, the sweep of battle, the advance of the patrol beneath ominous skies (filmed with a very real dangerous thunderstorm approaching), the brilliant cinematography, again featuring Monument Valley, won an Academy Award. Admittedly, the music here, composed by Richard Hageman, doesn't quite measure up to the other movie theme songs
or scores here, but this is such a classic western, I felt I just had to include it. John Ford's 'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon', from 1949 -


'The Call of the Faraway Hills', composed by Victor Young, is the theme from the classic 1953 movie "Shane" (though the novel on which the movie is based is better still, with Shane being a darker, more enigmatic character) of which by many westerns themes are often measured by -


'The Searchers' is often cited (including by me) as the greatest western ever made. As a western, it has it all - heroes, drama, action, and magnificent cinematography, especially, once again, the awe inspiring Monument Valley (another American "must see"). Max Steiner's score with its unforgettable themes and rousing rhythms provides the perfect accompaniment to the action - and the singers? None other than one of our very first featured artists in the history -
The Sons of the Pioneers (see posts # 123-124). 'The Searchers' score from 1956 -


Today was just a taste - tomorrow, which covers the period 1958 to 1962, will have some of the best movie theme music of all.
 

Professor Knowall

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My favourite title track for a John Wayne movie:



Generelly speaking western, this one is pretty cool, too:

But not so sure it really is right in thread...
Both really good and original (i.e. not standout obvious) choices - and yeah, I'll be covering the movie themes era from cerca 1963 onward (and especially Ennio Morricone) sometime later.
 

Professor Knowall

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Today will feature the best western movie themes from 1958 to 1962 - and it includes at least 2 of the greatest ever movie themes. I'll just go straight into 'em.

First up, the 1958 movie 'The Big Country' ain't as iconic as the others I've listed, but its theme, by Jerome Moross sure
is - it's absolutely one of the very best. It’s impossible not to envision a dusty-trailed cattle drive on the wide open, vast American prairie when listening to this tune. It's full of hope, action, energy, motivation and yearning. This magnificent soundtrack launched Jerome Moross’s movie career. Here he perfected the exciting rugged style inspired by his first experience of the Great Plains -


The previously mostly unknown Jerome Moross was amazingly denied the Oscar for his still famous score by one of the most forgettable scores (for 'The Old Man and The Sea') by the far better known Dmitri Tiomkin. In 1959's 'Rio Bravo', another classic western, the theme composed by Tiomkin, 'Deguello', is based on the bugle call used by the Spanish
(and hence Mexican) military down through the centuries, signifying no quarter to be given to the enemy -


Why the Ukrainian-born, St. Petersburg Conservatory-trained concert pianist Dmitri Tiomkin, proved a great composer
for western films still intrigues, but the fact remains Tiomkin's openhearted, bigger-than-life musical persona evoked the big open skies of the American West as well as any American born composer. But, to quote Tiomkin, in defense of his American western film scores and also recognizing his Russian music training - "A steppe is a steppe is a steppe". His native Ukraine and Russia also have wide open plains and Tiomkin's western music does sound at times very Russian.

Whatever the influence, 'The Alamo' was one of the most ambitious film scores for a Hollywood western and is also one
of Tiomkin's greatest film scores, filled with a bountiful mixture of Mexican-flavored music, full blown orchestral splendor, and several memorable songs, all accompanying the not always accurate retelling of the historical events that eventually led to the formation of the State of Texas. Unfortunately, John Wayne's direction doesn't help this sometimes overly talky movie. But it remains one of the greatest epic westerns of its era thanks largely to Tiomkin's beautiful and moving score -


And now a popular choice for the greatest movie theme of all (and I don't just mean western movies) the immortal
theme music from the 1960 John Sturges film "The Magnificent Seven" with Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Horst Buchholz, Brad Dexter & James Coburn. The film (since remade in 2016) was
a western version of Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai". The theme music to this all-time great Western, composed by Elmer Bernstein is the most well known number on this list. Its upbeat melody may have you raring to grab your Stetson, your colt six shooter revolver and saddle up -


Dimitri Tiomkin was the first composer approached to compose the music for one of Hollywood's biggest epic movies, 'How The West Was Won'. However, Tiomkin became unavailable as a result of eye surgery, and Alfred Newman was
hired as a replacement. The score he came up with is widely considered to be Newman's best, and was nominated for
the Academy Award for Best Original Score. The main theme takes its place as one of the finest and most enduring in cinematic history. Newman evokes a forthright 1962 American construct, abounding in pride, boldness and confidence, which captures the film’s emotional core. Opening with a horns bravura that captures the spirit of America’s quest to achieve its “Manifest Destiny”, but then sheds the bravado for a more lyrical articulation, whose aspiration speaks to
hope for a new life, which propelled the pioneers westward. 'How The West Was Won' by Alfred Newman, from 1962 -


So that's it for western movie themes for now - if you were hoping, or expecting, some of the great themes from the recently departed Ennio Moricone, I'm sorry, but his time has not yet come - you'll have to wait until I plough well into
the sixties, where he should get his very own section, along with other western themes of the 1960's.
 

Professor Knowall

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I'll be hitting the road for the next 2 weeks and won't have time for any history, though I may pop in for quick posts.
We're at the threshold of the 1960's in the history, so I've done an updated index to the history, including the sub-genre types of each artist or group. You can use this as a guide to peruse any artist or country sub-genre at your leisure.

Name, Post/s number, State of origin, Key to sub-genre.
TF = Traditional and/or folk country (as established by Vernon Dalhart, The Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers)
G = Gospel
WC = Western Cowboy or trail songs
WM = Western movie music
WT = Western Swing
HT = Honky Tonk (baroom "adult" music - usually about breakups, heartaches, drinking, cheating etc) that generally appealed to the rural and working class base.
BG = Bluegrass (usually traditionally acoustic using traditional instruments including banjo and slap bass)
RR = Rockabilly and/or rock'n'roll (rockabilly generally retaining a more country flavour than straight out R&R) that in the 1950's was generally confined to the youth, mostly teenage base.
NS = Nashville Sound, a more sophisticated 'pop country' sound than honky tonk, deliberately appealing to a mass suburban, more middle class audience, thus expanding the country music market.
CB = Country Ballad, e.g. Marty Robbins' 'El Paso' and Johnny Hortons 'Battle of New Orleans', popular in the late fifties to early sixties.

Vernon Dalhart 114-115 Texas TF
The Carter Family 117-119 Virginia TF, G
Jimmie Rodgers 120-122 Mississippi TF, HT
Sons of the Pioneers 123-124 California WT, WM
Gene Autry 125-126 Texas WT, WM
Bob Wills &
The Texas Playboys 132-140 Texas WS
Roy Acuff 147-149 Tennessee TF, G
Jimmie Davis 150-153 Louisiana TF
Roy Rogers 154-157 Ohio WT, WM
Elton Britt 159-160 Arkansas WT, TF
Ernest Tubb 161-165 Texas HT
Milton Brown 163 Texas WS
Al Dexter 166-168 Texas HT
Spade Cooley 169-171 Oklahoma WS
Tex Williams 172 Illinois WS
Red Foley 173 & 176-178 Kentucky TF, HT, RR, G
Tex Ritter 179-180 Texas TF, HT, WM
Bill Monroe &
The Bluegrass Boys 181-183 Kentucky BG
Merle Travis 184-186 Kentucky HT, TF
The Stanley Brothers 187-188 Virginia BG
Eddy Arnold 189-191 Tennessee TF, HT, NS, WT
Flatt & Scruggs 194-195 Tennessee BG
Tenessee Ernie Ford 196-197 Tennessee TF, RR
Moon Mullican 198-199 Texas HT, RR
Hank Snow 202-204 Novia Scotia (Can) TF, HT
Hank Williams 205-214 Alabama HT, TF, RR, G
Lefty Frizzell 216-219 Texas HT, TF
Mother Maybelle &
The Carter Sisters 222 Virginia TF, G
Anita Carter 225-232 Virginia TF
Carl Smith 233-234 Tennessee HT, RR
Hank Thompson 235-237 Texas WS, HT, RR
Kitty Wells 238-239 Tennessee HT
Webb Pierce 240-250 Louisiana HT, RR
Jean Shepard 251 Oklahoma HT
Slim Whitman 252-254 Texas WT
Frankie Laine 255-256 Illinois WM
Faron Young 261-262 & 266 Louisiana HT, TF
Ray Price 269-275 Texas HT, TF, NS
Elvis Presley 278-286 Alabama RR, TF, G
Carl Perkins 287-291 Tennessee RR, TF
The Louvin Brothers 294-295 Tennessee TF, G
Johnny Horton 296 & 301 & 308 California. HT, RR, CB
Sanford Clark 311-313 Arizona RR, WT
Marty Robbins 325-330 & 335 Arizona HT, RR, TF, WT, CB, WS, NS, G
Johnny Cash 338-345 Arkansas RR, HT, TF, CB, WT, NS, G
Charlie Feathers 346-348 Tennessee RR
Jerry Lee Lewis 349-352 & 365-367 Louisiana RR, HT, TF, G
Chet Atkins 353-356 Tennessee - world class guitarist and producer of NS
Ferlin Husky 362-364 Missouri NS, G
The Browns 368-369 Arkansas TF, G
Jim Ed Brown 371-372 Arkansas TF, HT
Helen Cornelius 372 Missouri TF, HT
Bobby Helms 377 Indiana RR, TF
Hank Locklin 378-379 Florida HT, TF
Jim Reeves 383-386 Texas NS
Patsy Cline 387-389 Virginia NS
Cowboy Copas 390 Oklahoma TF
The Everly Bros 393-399 Illinois RR, TF
Don Gibson 400-404 North Carolina HT
George Jones 405-412 Texas HT
Western movie themes to 1962 WM (obviously!)

So I'll see'ya back in a couple of weeks.
 

THE A5

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2 and half years ago he was just some kid on twitter that was posting weirdos of him belting out his song on a guitar and now he's playing at the Grand Ole Opry. Also belts out a tune about in the memory of his late mother while at it too.
 

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