The King Is Gone, And So Are You
Last night I broke the seal on a Jim Beam decanter
That looks like Elvis
I soaked the label off a Flintstone Jelly Bean jar
I cleared us off a place on that
One little table that you left us
And pulled me up a big ole piece of floor.
I pulled the head off Elvis
Filled Fred up to his pelvis
Yabba Dabba Doo, the King is gone
And so are you.
Here’s George Jones having a pretty good time singing it:
The King Is Gone (So Are You). It’s a nice piece of songwriting, really. You can just see the lovelorn guy in that room with a single table, in a drunken conversation with Elvis and Fred Flintstone. Roger Ferris wrote it, and he does a fine job of singing the song himself (here’s a video), but we only know it because George Jones sang it, and sang it so well. An icon, singing about two icons, one real and one fictional, and all three brought to us by the power of mass media before the internet was even a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye.
Some us are old enough to recall AM radio and 45 records, then the clearness of FM, and those precious LP’s played on the sacred entertainment center in the generally-off-limits living room. “Don’t sit on those chairs until you’ve had a bath!” Now we don’t see many formal living rooms, and everyone’s got an entertainment center in their ear. The music bandwidth is wide and diffused. New artists who are singing what we would consider authentic country or folk drop a record, tour, drop a record, tour, while not really penetrating much beyond their niche. One can argue that there’s not another voice like George Jones, and that’s a valid argument, but there are voices out there. Really good voices. If they play it close to the roots, however, the odds are they’ll never sell enough records to enter the national consciousness.
Years ago, I remember my grandmother remarking on how many funerals she attended. Same for fans of country and rock ‘n’ roll, I suppose. We’re seeing a parade of radio-made heroes head on off to the great unknown, to join an angel band. Some of these folks are so fundamental (not were, mind you, are is intended here) that it’s hard to imagine a world without their music, even though they may not have made an influential record in quite a while. He Stopped Loving Her Today came out 33 years ago. The Last Waltz was recorded in 1976. As I was thinking about all this last week, I heard Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues on SiriusXM. That song came out in 1955, and again in 1968. Johnny Cash died 10 years ago this coming September. Waylon’s been gone over 10 years. Buck Owens died 7 years ago. And the King, well, he’s been gone over 35 years.
As Waylon sang about Jimmie Rodgers in Waymore’s Blues, “Jimmie he’s dead, he’s been a long time gone, been a long time gone, long time gone.” Long time gone comes quick, and those gravestones are passing by so fast they look like a picket fence.
As much as I like this egalitarian world of technological freedom where everyone can do what they want to do, have a record, own their own masters, get on YouTube, and be their own record company, we have to concede that a lot of what we understand about music comes directly from a time when the record companies ran the show and radio told us what to listen to. They say that George Jones took 18 months after the first verse of He Stopped Loving Her Today to record the spoken part. “Nobody’ll buy that morbid son of a bitch,” is what Jones supposedly said about the song, by the way. How would that story work in today’s world?
We are seeing the beginning of the end of an age. Our heroes who are still with us are aging. The Stones are out there on a 50th Anniversary tour. Merle and Kris are both 76. Willie just turned 80, though I’m pretty sure he’s good for another 20 years of touring. What will the world of music funerals be like 30 or 40 years down the road? What about 50 years? Will there be universally-loved household names who made their names singing country music in the post-radio age? Will authentic music will endure and permeate the culture in a way that its heroes continue to be American heroes? It’s hard to say.
I can say this: The King is gone, George Jones, and so are you. You left some mighty big shoes to fill. As Vince Gill said at the funeral, “It’s my belief that they don’t make those shoes anymore.” I’ll close this out with the video of Vince Gill and Patty Loveless at the Ryman service. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth the time. Good luck staying dry.
Mando Lines listens to music a lot and writes about it a little. A lot of the little he writes is on Twitter @mando_lines.