When George Jones stepped out on the makeshift stage of Fairfax High School's gym Saturday night, he defined not only his performance, but his career: "Well, I've come here to tell you folks, I'm ragged but right." A barrage of flashbulbs kept up through his next song, which also served as testimony to his position in country music: "(There's Nothing Better) Once You've Had the Best."
This most influential of singers -- you could barely draw a jury from the country fans who don't like him -- continues to do is his way, getting intimate with a song, bending its every note and lyric, sometimes holding them inside his throat for ransom, sometimes kicking them off the stage with little hop-steps, Jones invokes a unique tension, as if each song is a reluctant confession. Sometimes swooping from a growling bass to an almost-attained falsetto, twisting phrases into new patterns without obscuring their message.
Except for an annoying, unannounced mid-concert guest spot from Jones' pal Johnny Paycheck (who personified the gap between imitation and intuition in country music), Jones ran over achingly familiar territory -- "Window Up Above," "Grand Tour," "The Race Is On" and "If Drinking Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)." Many of the songs were invested with wry asides about his well-known relationship with Tammy Wynette, such as "If memory don't kill me, Tammy's last movie will." When Jones explored the unabashed sentimentality of "He Stopped Loving Her Today," one sensed -- maybe even hoped -- that the references to a love that ended only with the protagonist's burial had more than a little element of autobiography about them.