George Jones, who died this past Friday at age 81, had long been lauded as one of the greatest voices in country music history. He was also, along with Hank Williams, one of country music's most cautionary tales, with a history of alcoholism, substance abuse, marital woes, and career mismanagement that would have forced a lesser man into early retirement or (as in the case of Hank) an early death. Unlike Williams, Jones was never a great songwriter; he was a great interpreter of others' songs. He was very much a contradictory artist: A loner who did some of his best work in collaboration with another singer -- Tammy Wynette (his ex-wife) and Melba Montgomery most notably. And all of the problems that dogged him whenever he didn't appear onstage (which was frequent enough to earn him the nickname "No-Show Jones"), vanished when he was in thrall to his own gift, in performance, at one with the baleful sentiments he sang. He was hard on himself in every sense, and always carried with his toughness and stubbornness an air of hangdog shame, as though he felt destined to be the fool, not the master, of his life.
Jones was one of the most self-conscious, for good and ill, of great American artists. He knew his gift, he knew it wasn't so much his voice as his phrasing that was the genius part ('s why he could redeem so many lesser lyrics). But the clenched-jaw delivery can also serve as synecdoche for a man frozen, trapped: trapped by his feelings of inferiority, the unwarranted shame he felt about his class, the paralyzing sting of those in mainstream music industry who never recognized him fully, for the cruelty of country radio for abandoning him when he still had something to give. People of privilege sometimes don't understand why an artist can start to self-destruct when he feels resentment, abandonment, false praise instead of the kind of praise and appreciation of his gifts he knew he was owed. (And I'm talking about the whole arc of his career, not just the final years.) "No-Show" was a fond joke barely concealing a different diagnosis: an addictive, isolating personality that could not achieve enough comfort in his own skin. All of which makes the best music that he leaves behind more precious.