Country Music At Carnegie Hall

“If anyone had told me 40 years ago that I’d be onstage at Carnegie Hall opening for George Jones,” Kris Kristofferson said last night, “I would have taken better care of myself.” He was maybe even more excited to be there than we were.

George Jones has long since been left behind by the country music establishment, (which is much the worse for it) but he is one of the greatest singers in any genre of American music. He rarely plays anywhere in New York, and the last time he was onstage at Carnegie Hall was in 1962 along with Johnny Cash and the Carter Family, when that hallowed venue deigned for the first time to allow a country music performance.

Kristofferson never quite fit into the country establishment. His songs are best known in versions by other people and his closest peers are people like John Prine and Willie Nelson. He hasn’t done a show in New York City in close to 20 years.

Jones is a polished entertainer; the Jones Boys wear matching outfits and his road crews have black shirts with his “GJ” logo on the back. Unable to play guitar because of a broken wrist (which he attributed to a “car wreck” but his web site says happened in a fall),he apologized for his awkwardness in not knowing what to do with his hands, but he carried the show off professionally despite that and sound problems that had him grimacing at the side of the stage.

Kristofferson’s show was the complete opposite. He came out alone with his guitar and a harmonica around his neck and sang his stunning songs in his rough voice, all alone. He forgot the words a couple of times and had to stop and laugh. One harmonica solo ended abruptly after two notes when he realized he had the wrong harp in the rack (a mistake I’ve made more than once). His guitar wasn’t always in tune, he flubbed more than a few notes, and some of the songs just stopped rather than ending. But his performance was absolutely riveting; while my attention drifted during Jones’ set more than once (or was captured by the slide shows behind him), Kristofferson showed how little show-biz professionalism has to do with great performance.

He’s sadly underappreciated as a songwriter; when you hear Janis singing “Me and Bobby McGee,” you’re hearing one of his songs. He wrote the achingly beautiful “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” the classic lost-weekend rocker “The Best Of All Possible Worlds,” and political songs like “Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down” and “Vietnam Blues.”

And as a performer, however rough his show, he’s worth a thousand choreographed stage shows. He sang “Me and Bobby McGee” slowly, adding almost as an afterthought, “And Janis,” after the line “Feeling good was good enough for me / Me and Bobby McGee.” It’s a completely different song when he sings it, especially now that he’s well past 60. “I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday” is tragic when you hear Janis sing it, but it’s somehow reassuring coming from him. And the roughness of the performance just made it more intimate.

Then after a brief intermission the Jones Boys came out and warmed up the audience with three or four songs, until finally the man himself walked out, wearing a black suit and turtleneck with sunglesses, silver hair coiffed. He stepped up to the microphone and the voice was still there, mellow like old whiskey, warm and well aged.

“You notice country singers have stopped singing about drinking?” he asked. “And they don’t sing songs about cheating anymore? I’d be out of a job!” Jones has been to hell and back, duplicating the Johnny Cash story and, like Cash, nearly turning it into the Hank Williams story. Now all he drinks is his own private-labeled “Tennessee Sippin’ Water” (you can order it from his web site along with his sausage and hamburgers) and when he sings “I’m a One-Woman Man” you know it’s not artificial wholesomeness you’re hearing.

Some audience members sat through Kristofferson’s antiwar messages with their arms folded, but there wasn’t a single person unaffected by Jones’ “50,000 Names,” and whatever George’s politics are he kept them to himself, dedicating the song to soldiers in Iraq and mentioning 9/11 for good measure.

And at the end, he invited Kristofferson out, and they sang two gospel numbers together, Kristofferson’s own “Why Me Lord” and an older number, harmonizing beautifully. It was a night to remember, one that given Jones’ age, might not ever happen again in New York City.

But if this world keeps right on turnin’ for the better or the worse
And all he ever gets is older and around
From the rocking of the cradle to the rolling of the hearse
The going up was worth the coming down

–“Pilgrim Chapter 33,” Kris Kristofferson

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