Art in Paradise: Playing Possum

George Jones, “The Possum,” took the stage at Northampton’s Calvin Theater after, bizarrely, a music video (Eric Lee Beddingfield’s “The Gospel According to Jones”). It was quite the somber, dramatic build-up, full of serious shots of Beddingfield looking as if he was either praying or recovering from eating several dozen buttermilk biscuits.

When Jones started singing, it felt as if everyone in the room took an apprehensive breath. He could barely sing. His legendary dulcet tones, full of weirdly bent notes and old-school country whine, were almost entirely gone. But the poor guy, now an octogenarian, apparently is on the upside of recovery from a major respiratory infection. That would sap anyone’s vocal strength. He occasionally put his hand to his chest as if he was hurting, and his upper range was a whisper.

Nobody much seemed to mind that, since we’d all packed into the Calvin to see a legend, and there he was, singing for all he was worth despite the ravages of sickness and, according to recent press releases, Facebook rumors of his death. Of all the old-school country practitioners of excess, Jones seems the least likely to still be touring in 2012. I’m not even the biggest fan of the overbaked brand of country melodrama he represents, but his track record of massive hits across many decades is inarguable, and a voice as unusual as his doesn’t arrive just every day. You’ve got to like that, even if you don’t like that.

And one thing’s clear: his top-notch band and his catalogue of tunes produced such a mellifluous evening of music that, days later, the strains of “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Why Baby Why?” still float through the air around my house, no matter the absence that night of the Possum’s famous whine.

The show was, at times, plain weird—slideshows that seemed to have been assembled from Sunday School books and Hallmark cards often distracted from the music, lending a surprisingly amateurish, church-basement feel. When he sang beneath those pastel scenes, Jones seemed like a man from an age of mustard yellow cars and Naugahyde couches, but, at the same time, one of achingly realized, raw and stripped-down Southern music.

Creating such nostalgia is one of the more interesting uses of the Calvin. When its schedule brings someone at the end of a career to town, the venue is transformed into a place where people come to, more or less, visit the past. It was the same when Loretta Lynn visited, and maybe more so when James Brown graced the stage not long before his death. Lynn’s version of the past was a comfortable one, a homespun place graced by her easy presence. Brown’s show, on the other hand, was nearly high camp, full of choreography and glitzy, skimpy outfits. The effect was rather like that of watching a movie considered racy in its time that’s now closer to comical. Yet, without question, Brown rocked the joint.

George Jones has announced that next year will bring his final tour, a grand 60-city voyage. It’s hard not to wonder if his present tour should continue just yet, what with the obvious stress of Jones’ having to perform without his greatest asset at full strength. A few more months of recovery will, one hopes, bring him back to full voice—it’s a sure bet that his fans hope he can exit performing while he’s at the top of his game. Even with the Possum at half-strength, that night at the Calvin was like an intersection of another age with ours, and moments like that are hard to find.

Author: James Heflin

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