Long-term readers might have noticed I didn’t write about Rhythm and Blooms this year and thought it odd. It is odd. As much as I love music and as much as I’ve enjoyed Rhythm and Blooms in the past, of course I’d be there. But this year I wasn’t. We made the decision some weeks earlier that my father and some of his friends would travel to Knoxville and join us at the George Jones concert on Saturday night. With company arriving Friday afternoon and staying until Monday morning, there was no way to do Rhythm and Blooms.
Not that I minded completely. I love George Jones and when Urban Woman and I had seen him before we really enjoyed the show. I was happy to see him again, though without a nudge from my father I would likely have attended the music shows all over downtown and missed it. I’m so very glad I didn’t. The show was at the Knoxville Coliseum and while that worried me for the sound, it turned out to be fine. I would have strongly preferred the Tennessee Theatre, but you take what you can get.
The show opened with two of the Statler Brothers’ sons and they were very talented, though their choice of material and hokey humor didn’t really appeal to me. During their set I realized how many people had brought cameras and regretted my choice not to try to get mine in. After an intermission, a video began to play of a song called the Gospel According to Jones by Eric Lee Beddingfield. Even before we saw the shape George was in, it moved us. Watch it below. It’s hard, if you care about George Jones.
After that intro, George’s band came onto the stage. The band included a handsome, young fiddle player who was later introduced. His was the only introduction that did not include his hometown. They talked about the fact that he teaches at Belmont College, but no mention of his east Tennessee roots or the fact that his brother fronts a very successful up-and-coming band called the Black Lillies. It seemed odd not to mention that Billy Contreras is from Maryville and that people around here have watched him play for years. I first saw him play behind Robinella atop an improvised stage on Gay Street years ago.
George eventually made his way to the stage with help. A band member pointed out that George had been through two back surgeries, but was determined to play for Knoxville. He, of course, made a few jokes about his reputation for not showing up for concerts. Still, it was clear his pain was severe. He stood, sat in a low chair, tried a higher chair and generally could not seem to find a position that didn’t hurt.
His voice was weak, augmented all around by excellent musicians and a female vocalist. Still, there were times that heart-wrenching Jones voice would cut through the pain and the ravaged vocal cords, reminding the audience of the presence of a master. I’d like to think in those moments he lost his pain and felt joy at sharing his gift one final time with a crowd. I can’t remember the entire set list, of course, but he sang “Why Baby Why,” “White Lightning,” “Window Up Above,” “She Thinks I Still Care,” “The Grand Tour,” and “Choices.” A video played behind him as he sang, “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes.” Here it is for you – another powerful testament to his greatness and that of the others he names.
At the end of a painful hour in which I wasn’t certain if he’d be able to finish, he dug deep and pulled out a great rendition of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Artists like George Jones have meant everything to me. For my entire life they have been my touchstone. They remind me of what is real and give me an anchor. To see George Jones obviously diminished and singing a song about being buried was tough. Combined with my own personal pain with the loss of my mother last Fall and my eighty-year-old father sitting down the row, it was more than I or Urban Woman could take. We both wept. For George, for my mother, my father and for all of humanity.
Then the lights came up. No one could know that the last song George would ever sing had just been offered up to heaven. Within days, he was hospitalized and the next dates on the abbreviated tour were canceled. The announcement came this past Friday, thirteen days after his last show concluded in Knoxville, Tennessee, that George was no longer of this world.
So another artist whose ending is associated with Knoxville will be added to the list. Hank Williams spent his last conscious hours New Years Day 1951 at the Andrew Johnson Hotel on Gay Street. All that’s left of that grim day is a marker in front of the building. Rachmaninoff gave his last concert on the UT campus in February 1943. We have a statue to commemorate that fact. It’s at the edge of the World’s Fair Park.
So, what will be made of George’s last concert? Will it merit a plaque? Will someone donate money for a sculpture? I’d love to see a life-sized George Jones in downtown Knoxville. Or perhaps it will simply become an answer to an odd trivia question. For me, it will remain a very personal memory of an encounter with greatness which touched me deeply. Goodbye George.