(Diversions, a recurring feature on Aquarium Drunkard, catches up with our favorite artists as they wax on subjects other than recording and performing.)
Considering what passes for “country music” in Nashville these days (not to mention “country radio”) it’s easy to forget there are true heirs to the old masters writing, recording and performing in the here and now of 2011. Robert Ellis is one such artist. I caught the Houston musician at a club here in L.A. a few months back and have not shut up about the guy since. With a new LP, Photographs, on the shelves as of last month, I asked Ellis to discuss one of his heroes—George Jones.
While on the road last week, the guys and me popped into a local record store in Denton, TX to buy some vinyl. Much to my surprise the store had a very extensive country music section, all in very good condition and appropriately priced. Trying not to spend too much, I left with around 5 albums. The gem of my finds is definitely Burn the Honky Tonk Down by George Jones.
It’s a collection of tunes from 10 different recording sessions from 1965-1971 with Pappy Daily’s then newly formed label Musicor. I know most of the songs and have even covered a couple but this is the first time I have seen this particular collection. The cover photo and layout are what initially struck me. As usual Jones has an immaculate flat top and badass suit on. That strange little smirk and the layout of the text are just killer. This time period for Jones is also my absolute favorite musically because to me it is the perfect combination of the best songs, best musicians and the best production of his stuff. The arrangements sound huge in one way, yet very tasteful in another. It’s when songs were still mixed and recorded appropriately. Vocals are way on top and everything else is tucked under just so. There seems to be this need now to have every little part of a record be so loud and clear, drawing attention to itself. However, listening to records from this time period, the vocals are what stand out. Every other aspect of these arrangements serves the song. It puts George’s golden voice atop a pedestal of instrumentals whose foundation is interestingly beautiful, while never distracting from the vocals.
The opening and title track, “Burn the Honky Tonk Down” is one of my favorites. It has a very strange straight ¾ feel that you don’t hear in many country tunes. It has some killer fiddle breaks and vocal melodies that pull you in all directions in true Jones fashion. Lyrically, there are some very creative ideas and narratives that are seldom heard in any style of music. The song is sung from the perspective of a man who works all day cutting down trees to build the honky-tonk, in which his wife later spends all his money. At the end, he decides to quit his job and burn the honky-tonk down with his wife inside. There are similarly interesting narratives and strange ideas on other favorite tracks of mine, including: “Developing My Pictures,” “Where the Grass Won’t Grow,” “Beneath Still Waters” and my favorite, and perhaps the biggest hit from these recordings, “Good Year for the Roses.”
There are some kick ass rock and roll tunes on this record too. “Feeling Single-Seeing Double“ is a pretty self-explanatory title. From what I understand, George was probably under the influence of alcohol during much of the tracking and performing many live shows during this period. There are some drug and alcohol related stories about Jones that are practically tall tales at this point, and whether he was drunk when recording this song or not, you can hear real sincerity and conviction. words/ robert ellis
MP3: Robert Ellis :: What’s In It For Me