I Still Sing the Old Songs

             Occasionally, I send my son a text-message–and he, being a college student who lives in a different dimension of reality, inevitably ignores my message. But the other day, I sent him a three word message–“George Jones died”–and within a few seconds he telephoned me. That’s never happened before–and it’s a measure of how important Jones has been to our lives over the years. On Facebook, my son thanked George for the recordings that made long vacation car trips easier!

             George Jones lived hard for much of his life, and he was truly blessed to make it to 81 (one could easily imagine him expiring at 29 like ole Hank). He eventually got things together with the help of the Lord and a good woman. One of his last recordings was “Amazing Grace” for a charity fundraisiing project–and certainly George’s life exemplifies God’s amazing grace! Maybe that’s one thing we can learn from George: never to give up on anyone (or on ourselves). God’s grace in the crucified and risen Jesus can work powerful changes in a person’s life. Jesus tells the parable about the fig tree that wasn’t bearing fruit. The owner of the land wants to cut the tree down because it’s unproductive–but the gardener pleads for the owner to give the tree another chance. Let me dig around it and fertilize it and see what happens, he says (Luke 13:6-7). God gave George plenty of second chances, and it finally took!

             I think there are some other spiritual lessons I’ve learned from George...like putting yourself wholeheartedly into whatever you do. George recorded a lot of lousy songs, but I don’t think he ever gave a bad performance. Sinatra once called him “the second greatest singer in the world” (whom do you think Frank had in mind as number one?). He always gave his best (except, as we’ll note, on those occasions where substance abuse derailed him). But it was obvious he threw his entire heart into his art. When he reaches for one of those high notes that ends up almost sounding like a scream, the hair stands up on the back of my neck. One of my favorite verses is from Ecclesiastes: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” (9:10). George exemplifies that. Whenever I encounter someone

who gives their all to what they do–a singer, an instrumentalist, an actor...heck, a car repair person!–I find that it uplifts me, and helps me do better at my work. Listening to George Jones has, I think, made me a better preacher and pastor–because when I see someone excelling at what they do, it makes me want to excel at what I do!

             George also encompasses a wide range of human emotions. Like the DJ character in “Radio Lover”: “I play a little sad, and I play a lot of glad...” This, too, makes me think of a verse from Ecclesiastes: “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” (3:4 ). He could sing silly songs with enormous joy–like “Love Bug”, or “I’m a People”, or “White Lightning”. And then he could turn around and sing a song of absolute emotional devastation–like “A Good Year for the Roses” or “The Grand Tour” or “He Stopped Loving Her Today” or “Still Doing Time”. With Jones’ singing, you could feel the joy...and feel the sorrow. He spanned the highest and the lowest emotions in human life.

             I remember praying once, a few years before I became a pastor: “Lord, when I’m sad, help me find my consolation in You, not in George Jones records”. An interesting prayer–obviously I felt I was leaning a little too much on George and not enough on the Lord! Now, with a little more maturity, I might say: “Thanks, Lord, for giving me those George Jones records to help me get through times of sadness”.

             George had a couple of nicknames–“The Possum”, because like the great marsupial he had a lot of endurance...you thought he was done for, and then he’d just unroll himself and keep going! And also: “No Show Jones”–not such a nice nickname, because when he was mired in substance abuse, he often didn’t show up for concerts. This showed disregard for his fans, and was a gross violation of Woody Allen’s great rule: “Eighty percent of life is just showing up”. Amazingly, though, his fans forgave him, and even cherished his “no show” nickname. There’s a wonderful spiritual lesson there, too: “As the Lord has forgiven you, so also you must forgive”. (Colossians 3:13)

             A Bad Thing happened to country music around 1990 or so–the genre embraced something called “New Country”. This basically meant that unless you were young and purty, you didn’t get played on the radio. (This had something to do, I’m sure, with looking good on music videos). Most great country singers at the time were not young and purty. (As Jason Eady recently sang about classic country: “I miss the days when the women were ugly and the men were all forty years old”). So suddenly, all the great singers were kicked off the radio in favor of the young and purty. You didn’t hear George, or Merle, or Loretta anymore. Mainstream country music has never been the same. But despite this rejection by the industry he helped build, George kept going on. Possum that he was, he endured, and kept making his music.

             That makes me think of our style of Lutheranism, actually. When I travel around the country, I note that lots of churches have more or less abandoned the classic liturgy. I’ve even run into churches where they won’t sing any piece of music written before 1990 (creepily like the “New Country” rule that no one over 30 got any radio play). The classic style we have at St. Paul’s isn’t all that fashionable anymore. But we keep going–doing what we do best, doing it to the glory of God. George once sang a powerful David Allan Coe piece: “I Still Sing the Old Songs.” At St. Paul’s, we still sing the “old songs” as we praise the Lord with joy! I guess we’ve got a little possum in us, too.

             God loves you and so do I!




Vol. 84 - No. 5
May 2013