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May 29, 2013

Keep on the Sunny Side

Playing possum

George Jones died on April 26. He was 81 years old. I was so sad and surprised to hear of George’s death. He had really come to seem immortal.

When Tammy Wynette died 15 years ago, she was only 55. George outlived Tammy by 26 years! Tammy was always kind of sickly, but still, what are we supposed to learn from that? George got straight years ago but had been seriously coked-up and pickling himself for decades. How should we adjust our behaviors based on this information?

As “Mr. and Mrs. Country Music,” George and Tammy were solid gold. Their duets from that period are perfectly heartbreaking. “Stand By Your Man,” Tammy’s autobiography, chronicles their rollercoaster life together and the substance abuse that was part of Jones’ public persona. Their marriage provided everything required to write No. 1 country hits — passion, betrayal and wacky hijinx. She hid the car keys, so George’s drunk ass rode the lawnmower 8 miles to the nearest bar. He often rode the thin line between absolute genius and desperate clown. In the world of popular music, that’s where the magic happens.

Like “Moby Dick” or Elvis, George Jones is one of those rare cases in our culture where the product lives up to the hype. Tammy Wynette put “a tear in every word,” but George added a tear plus five or six extra notes. He could turn a monosyllabic word into a full line of iambic pentameter. “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” one of his most beloved songs, reached No. 1 in 1980 — 21 years after his first No. 1 hit, “White Lightning.” His career was so long and his songs affected his fans so personally that his shows were sometimes like religious revivals.

During his shows, you had to give up on the idea of hearing George sing. His concerts were about more than that. His fans were there to “sing’’ along with him. Sometimes it was hard to hear him at all. There was always a guy in the band who did a great Jones imitation and would double George’s vocals if he started to fall apart. Sometimes George’s voice totally dropped out. It didn’t matter. Everybody in the room knew the words and was more than willing to belt them out.

My band played a show opening for George Jones about 12 years ago. From the stage, he mentioned cough syrup and talked about being on “cold medicine.” Some of his gear was on stage during our soundcheck. We had never seen a teleprompter before and wondered if we would ever be cool enough to watch TV while doing a show.

I didn’t get to meet him. His people ran the backstage like a Black Ops site. Mr. Jones was sequestered in his bus while guys on walkie-talkies cleared the elevators. I wish I could have talked to him and looked into his crazy, remarkably close-set eyes. I miss him already.

I used to buy George Jones Country Gold brand dog food up at the Winn-Dixie. I’ll never understand why there was no reference to his nickname “Possum” in the marketing campaign. It wasn’t possum flavored or possum approved or anything! Country music stars have a long history of attaching their images to groceries. I have eaten the Haggar Twins’ corn muffin mix and Jimmy Dean’s sausage, and once I came really close to buying a box of Dwight Yoakam’s frozen “Ring of Fire” chicken rings.

George Jones is the last of his generation of country music superstars. Maybe Kenny Chesney sells his own brand of dog food; I will not be buying any. It is a strange moment in time. We are drawing closer to a future in which rich people will never die — too late for George and Tammy, but I’m still hopeful for Keith Richards.

Catherine Irwin is a lifelong apologist for the possum. As a child, she had a pet possum named Petey. If you are a hater, here is a fun fact that might sway you: “Playing possum” is really just fainting! When they get scared, they just pass out. Put some Fig Newtons in your birdfeeder and just wait for the possums to arrive.