As tributes go, it wasn’t bad.
Crackling out of the static last Friday, WSM-AM played — from A to Z — every song George Jones ever recorded, as the station led into the night’s broadcast of the Opry.
On the day he died, country music’s monster broadcaster, its 50,000 watts pulsing from its towering Williamson County antenna, blasted The Possum’s lifework and plaintive voice into the ether one more time.
Meanwhile, on FM country radio, some manufactured baritone sang songs about sitting on the tailgate of his $50,000 truck in some just-barely out-of-the-suburbs Southern boomtown, drinking beer with his buddies.
That was followed by a plastic chanteuse half-whispering, half-shrieking her tremolos of desire at a boy-who-left-her.
Let’s hope this little cowboy hat trick was not punctuated by the truly embarrassing “Accidental Racist,” a song that seems so calculatingly awful, one hopes it was indeed accidental, coming from the heretofore-likable Brad Paisley.
Picking on mainstream country music radio takes no courage. It’s an easy target, and it’s a target precisely because it is so easy.
The vast majority of the songs churned out by the factory farms on Music Row are indistinguishable caricatures of country life and true love.
And radio plays what it is fed by this meat-grinder, and it plays what its listeners want. Its playlists are dictated by focus groups and all-too-often by faraway corporations racing for the lowest common denominator.
Music Row is nothing if not efficient, dutifully creating its interchangeable parts year after year and decade after decade.
And WSM, keeper of the flame, isn’t part of this complaint, interestingly enough. That behemoth was indeed the tastemaker of country music for years — dictating what was “good” and what was “country” and all but defining what was popular. But WSM-AM separated itself from the machine years ago, steadfastly committing to playing classic country, leaving the newer stuff to its FM counterparts.
(And of that newer vintage, it’s ironic that the modern country music that manages to rise above the overwhelming vapidity of Music Row’s output is being produced for a prime-time soap opera called Nashville.)
It’s in this environment, though, that we can truly appreciate a generational talent like George Jones, not because he sang in a different era — for there was pabulum on country radio in the ’60s and ’70s, just as there is now and just as there will be in the future — but because Jones was just so damned good.
“He Stopped Loving Her Today” transcends eras in a way that “Hey Me And My Friends Want To Go Out And Party In The Summer Popping Tops With Girls In Bikinis And Cowboy Boots” — or whatever is No. 1 today — never will. We’ll remember his voice — as silky smooth as any tuxedoed crooner, but with enough Texas twang to ensure he’d never be confused for a pop singer — and, to paraphrase Waylon Jennings, we’ll all wish we could sing like he did.
And thank God no one else can sound like old No Show, because there would be some crass producer on The Row making sure everyone did.
Country music — maybe more than any other genre — is accurately described as an “industry,” a bleak wasteland of gray sameness.
There are still artisans, though, who make music, not as a product to be consumed, but as an art to be enjoyed forever and ever.
And when they leave us, we can see how gray and bleak that wasteland is.