Koka Booth Amphitheatre, Cary
Saturday, April 25
If each of George Jones’ infamously depressing albums should come standard with a bottle of whiskey and a loaded gun, it’s a good thing there was a strict no-weapons policy Saturday night at Cary’s Koka Booth Amphitheatre. Indeed, during Jones’ set, the heartache came in waves.
Suicide-by-country music methods notwithstanding, a diverse bunch of about 2,000 fans happily showed up to hear Jones’ sad country songs, a testimony to his musical versatility and his influence on many of today’s country singers. Before the show started, a teenage girl chatted about updating her Facebook status for Jones. An older couple talked about the grandchildren. A young boy paraded around with “POSSUM” shaved into the back of his Jones-worthy flat top.
Opener Jason Byrd—a Tallahassee, Fla., native with a solid command over the early ’90s, neo-traditionalist country sound—warmed the crowed with his acoustic set, successfully working in references to homecoming queens, bars and Wal-Mart alongside a cover of Keith Whitley’s “I’m Over You.” Jones’ longtime backing band, The Jones Boys—sharply dressed in black Hawaiian shirts—followed Byrd with covers of Jerry Lee Lewis and Waylon Jennings before Ol' Possum himself joined for “Why Baby Why.”
Jones worked his way through nearly two dozen of his most successful songs, as well as two instrumentals and a Tom T. Hall gospel tune he included as a “credit to the Man Upstairs” for getting him through some of his wilder exploits. Jones was well aware of the toll aging, boozing and craziness has taken on his voice and stamina. Though he moved freely without a guitar or microphone stand to anchor him, Jones pleaded with the audience to take that into consideration. He qualified the up-tempo “The Race Is On” with “If we can get through this song, we’ll be home free for the night” and repeatedly looked back at his band for support throughout the song.
Despite those warnings, Jones, who’s nearing his 80th birthday, was mostly in fine form. Taking a page out of the Willie Nelson playbook, he stayed on track by singing slightly behind the beat and slapping his leg in time with the music. During the lone lyrical slip-up of his hour-and-a-half set, he shook his head in comedic exasperation before forging on. While signature songs like “The Corvette Song,” “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair” and “White Lightning” still suit Jones’ voice like a snug Nudie suit, the authentic confession of “Choices” and the sheepish denial of “Not Ready Yet” actually benefited from the frailty seeping into his singing.
Any vocal weaknesses, however, were lost when Jones sang harmony: Brittany Allyn, a petite brunette with a clean, crisp voice reminiscent of Crystal Gayle, stepped in for Tammy Wynette on “Take Me” and “Golden Ring.” Byrd resurfaced as Merle Haggard for “Yesterday’s Wine.” Jones would turn to the back of the stage, stoop over and nail notes that perfectly complemented his singing partners, again verifying his place as one of the top harmony singers in musical history.
Still, the legend’s performance wasn’t without its misses. The music piped in before the show came from Jones’ latest record, Hits I Missed…And One I Didn’t, an odd choice (and marketing scheme) considering that George Jones in the studio is a far cry from George Jones live and onstage. Early in the show, he proclaimed, “It sure is beautiful weather here in South Carolina.” He was quickly corrected by his bandmates. And perhaps most surprisingly, he criticized today’s country radio for its lack of traditional drinkin’ and cheatin’ songs before featuring pop-country darling Carrie Underwood in a big-screen slideshow during “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?”
Jones has made an entire career out of making mistakes. But do fans really want to see him forget a lyric, hear his voice crack or watch as his memory fails him? Saturday, these shortcomings served as a reminder of the natural progression of aging and hard living, reinforcing the reason Jones catapulted into legendary status in the first place: When he sings a song about heartache, loss and pain, he’s been there. Even after all these years, he doesn’t just tear your heart out when he sings. Once it’s out, he’ll twist it, turn it and wring it dry.