The radio played George Jones at the barbecue joint where I ate lunch. I was eating Saint Louis ribs. Overhead, George Jones sang “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”
Whenever George sings the opening lyrics to this tune, a chill dances up my spinal column and I get sentimental. Immediately, I remember sitting in my father’s truck cab, wearing my Little League uniform, listening to the staticky AM station.
I glanced around the barbecue joint to make sure I wasn’t being watched during my musical moment. Then I dabbed my chin with a napkin and helped George remember the words.
I write a lot about old country music, and I’m sure the subject gets tiresome. But I do this for an important and well-planned reason:
Because I don’t have to do any actual research.
But also, because if you and I don’t keep these timeless melodies alive, who will?
As a boy, my family drove great distances to support the cause of Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff. We paid good money to watch Roy tear up his apple-tree fiddle and crack jokes alongside Sarah Cannon. Ernest Tubb was still making appearances at the Opry when I was a babe. And I don’t want to let all that go.
The idiocy they’re cranking out on the radio today simply cannot compare to the country tunes of yore.
Classic country is folk art. Plain and simple. It is subtle lyricism based on a two-beat bassline, a steel-stringed rhythm section, and bottled malt beverages. This music was the poetry of stick welders, sharecroppers, and coal miners’ kids. And it’s ours.
When Loretta Lynn sang “Blue Kentucky Girl,” you weren’t merely listening to a radio. You were listening to one of your own take the microphone. This is why whenever Willie sang “You Took My Happy Away,” your daddy’s allergies always acted up.
I don’t mean to be critical, but new country is an embarrassment to my kind. Our ancestors would choke on their Beechnut if they heard such sacrilege muddying the airwaves.
Men like my father didn’t spend 12 hours welding column splices only to jump into the Ford and listen to Luke Bryan sing about shaking his sugar shaker. My father would have driven his truck straight off the interstate.
No way. We listened to Merle, Chet, Don Gibson, and the Indelible Mister Jim Reeves. And we turned it up whenever George Jones uttered: “She said I’ll love you till I die…”
Lord have mercy.
Yesterday, I was in the supermarket and was assaulted with modern country-pop on the radio. I listened to several hit “bro country” songs against my will in the checkout lane. The lyrics demonstrated about as much poetic creativity as a gaseous bodily discharge.
I prefer the genuine stuff. There were no backup dancers in our country music. No music videos. We had out-of-tune pianos, twin fiddles, and chicken-wire cages around the stage. And we would travel far and wide to find the real thing.
One time my cousin Ed Lee and I went to see a George Jones concert in Tennessee. We were teenagers. We drove several hundred miles crammed in a pickup cab, surviving on a steady diet of Van Camp’s pork and beans, taking turns behind the wheel.
You do not want to be in a vehicle with young men who eat pork and beans.
The concert was everything we dreamed it would be. George “the Possum” Jones wore a sparkly suit that was blinding. His voice was perfection. Also, you wouldn’t have wanted to light a match within ten feet of him, if you catch my drift.
Another time we traveled to Texas to see Randy Travis. Randy and his band performed before a modest nighttime crowd. The band wore full suits and neckties. There was a standup bass, a dobro, a flat picker, and a fiddle. Pure class. Nobody shook any sugar shakers.
Randy sang three or four Hank Williams tunes, then followed with “Walking the Floor Over You.” And when they played “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” hundreds of people flicked their lighters.
Ed Lee couldn’t find a BIC lighter to wave in the air, so he waved his BIC pen instead. The effect wasn’t the same, but his heart was in the right place.
The older I get, the more this world changes, and the further I get left behind. Minnie Pearl is dead. Merle Haggard is with his mama. And Merle Travis is forgotten.
Every day I see good people fighting about trivial things when they ought to be doing something constructive like volunteering for VBS. Outdoor dances have been replaced with dating apps, and nobody even knows who Sadie Hawkins is anymore.
All this could depress me if I thought about it long enough, but I refuse to dwell on sad topics.
Instead, I ate my ribs and listened to a distant radio. I remembered riding in that F-100 with my old man who kept one finger on the wheel while traveling fifty. Him covered in iron soot; me in my first baseman’s uniform. Radio blaring.
Anyway, that’s why I like George Jones.
Liz Hoyt Eberle - July 3, 2021 7:17 am
Timeless. Melodies. Real music. Memories. PLEASE keep writing, Sean Dietrich. You give us real tears of deep joy.
Brad Haase - July 3, 2021 10:39 am
I couldn’t agree with you more Sean. Nashville ought to be ashamed of itself. I understand why Willie gave Nashville the proverbial “bird” and went back to Texas. With the exception of Chris Stapleton “country” radio is unbearable.
I swear I was born 50 years too late. Keep on keepin’ on my friend. You are truly a bright spot in my life each day.
Norma Den - July 3, 2021 8:44 am
Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Jim Reeves, Elvis, the list of good singers is endless. Thumbs down to modern caterwauling.
Leigh Amiot - July 3, 2021 9:24 am
Watching TV is getting complicated these days, but if you can figure out how to watch “Country Music” by Ken Burns, it’s well worth the time—a 16 hour series in eight parts on PBS. Oh, did it take me back to my childhood in the 60s and 70s when authentic country music, bluegrass, and gospel albums played on the Hi-Fi in our living room.
Te - July 3, 2021 9:59 am
Being a generation older than you, the music that comes to mind was what I heard on the radio in the late 40s and early 50s. “Kiss of Fire” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” “Itty-Bitty Polka-Dot Bikini,” and earlier than that, Dino, Frank and Bing. When I hum, it’s the sound of the 40s. Torch singers in elegant gowns and velvet voices. Nat king Cole and B B King, Satchmo, Coltrane – I miss them all. I grew up “city.” Music – old as Time. Older than me!
Bill Dennis - July 3, 2021 10:33 am
True “classical” music!! George Jones sang, “Who’s gonna fill their shoes?” when these greats died out. Still waiting to find out.
Thanks for the column!
Dean - July 3, 2021 10:34 am
Country music is not country anymore. I only listen to gospel and the oldies music now days. If you can’t sing without most of your clothes off and do moves that belong in a strip joint then I just can’t watch are listen.
mebee414gmailcom - September 1, 2021 1:46 am
Try Cody Jinks….he is real country!
Ed (Bear) - July 3, 2021 10:42 am
I’m betting, “There’s a tear in my beer”, ain’t one of your favorites. Any man who would water down good beer with millions of tears probably needs a swift kick in the posterior.
Ann - July 3, 2021 11:06 am
All American!….happy Fourth of July 🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸
Bill in Montgomery - July 3, 2021 11:13 am
You couldn’t have said it better, Sean. I could listen to Willie and Merle all day.
Karen Holderman - July 3, 2021 11:23 am
They were great singers.
Janie Gentry - July 3, 2021 11:31 am
Darrell House - July 3, 2021 11:50 am
Could not agree more. Songwriters put too many words in a lyric and it sounds like it’s a race to the finish. 70 year old who played music live since age 14. DJ in late 70’s. Played with Merle Travis, Hank Jr., Mel Tilles, Faron Young & more. Tnx for the walk down memory lane. Keep up the great work…
jil - July 3, 2021 11:53 am
Amen Yes. Ye Haaaaaa. The olde songs you could understand the words, and the words meant every day life being lived, loved, and died. Todays songs are like someone scratching their finger nails on a chalk board, course the younger generation wouldn’t know what a chalk board was. Thanks. I remember those days as well.
Pamasa - July 3, 2021 11:54 am
One word: Edit.
throughmyeyesusa - July 3, 2021 4:47 pm
We will assume that your comment is OF COURSE directed at today’s song writers!
Kelly - July 3, 2021 12:12 pm
Amen, Sean, Amen.
Bobby - July 3, 2021 12:16 pm
Memory’s of days gone by!!! I’m 66 yrs old and I can remember when I was a young boy my Uncle Jack would have one too many and my Aunt Marie would kick him out of the house. He would come stay with us in the extra bedroom for a few days until he sobered up. I remember he would pay me a quarter to play Hank Williams Sr “I’m so lonesome I could cry” over and over on an old record player until he feel asleep. If he was still awake after that song was done..without opening his eyes he would say “play it again”. When he didn’t say it anymore I knew he was asleep and I could run to the little country store down the street and spend my hard earned money. I haven’t thought about that time in my life for a long time Sean. I want to thank you for reminding me of those special times my friend. 🙏
elizabethroosje - July 3, 2021 12:23 pm
Yep. You have it right Sean.
Stephanie Parker - July 3, 2021 12:24 pm
I too am at sea with “new country” and I still sometimes sing Swinging doors, a jukebox, and a barstool as I work around the farm and I dearly love your column. As I think about the music I also remember the cost of the times out of which that music was born. I remember how “I’m Proud to be an Okie from Muskogee” was a dividing anthem against the peace and civil rights movement. Truth be told I must confess I’m just not nostalgic. I see people who souls are dying as they dream about the “ good ol days” and I wonder to myself, “When were those?” I’ve decided that each time and generation has its own genius, it’s own vapid stupidity, and its own pain and joy. You are such a gift, I would hate to see you disappear into memory when your voice is such a lovely part of the present.
Sharon - July 3, 2021 12:30 pm
Amen & ABSOLUTELY agree!!!!! Keep the old country alive – classic!
Bob E - July 3, 2021 12:35 pm
Went to my first George Jones concert somewhere in Pennsylvania in 1963(?).
Still love his music.
You’re absolutely right about the better/best country being the classics.
Joe Haynie - July 3, 2021 12:37 pm
How bout Vern Gosdin? “If you’re gonna do me wrong, do it right”, “Chiseled in Stone” and many others. I like folks who like real country. I’m afraid we are like Georgia mules and good ole boys….fadin fast away.
Catherine - July 3, 2021 12:43 pm
Never, ever, in the history of country music will there be another to rival He Stopped Loving Her Today. The national anthem of country music that only George Jones could do justice by twanging it.
Jo Griffin - July 3, 2021 9:59 pm
Catherine – I so agree! Best ever! And Sean you too are the best. Keep up the good work of keeping our memories alive!
Rhonda - July 3, 2021 12:57 pm
I bet you would love Leon Russell song ” little dog”
Mississippi Country Girl - July 3, 2021 12:58 pm
Sean, thanks for starting my day off right every day! I grew up listening to Elvis, but when the Beatles arrived, I turned to country. “I was Country when Country wasn’t Cool.” I still listen to Jim Reeves on YouTube rather than today’s “country.”
Tom - July 3, 2021 1:15 pm
You are a man after my own heart. Country music ain’t country no more. I only listen to real country. We have a radio station in North Alabama (105.7) that plays country music- lovem. Allen Jackson got it right when he sung”Murder’s been committed on music row”. Enough said.
Felicia Pulliam - July 7, 2021 3:26 pm
I listen to that station, too! I love it, and they play songs I haven’t heard in years.
Ralph Bryson - July 3, 2021 1:21 pm
Amen!! Sirius ch 60; Willies Roadhouse!
Kip Carter - July 3, 2021 1:43 pm
I am so old that I remember having a Sadie Hawkins dance each year in high school.
Pat D - July 3, 2021 1:43 pm
You are so very correct about today’s Country singers, I don’t think they have lived lives for the most part that can contribute to the lyrics and feelings that the Hanks and Merles sang about with so much soul. When the older artists open their mouths you instantly knew who it was singing,today they all sound alike!!!
Donia - July 3, 2021 1:44 pm
I confess that I’ve never really been a fan of country music, although I was born in 1950. However, this modern attempt is a huge failure. The “artists” are less concerned about true country than they are with dressing slutty and trying to look sexier than the other singers. It is disgusting, yet laughable. Give me the real version any time.
Suellen - July 3, 2021 4:37 pm
You’re right. I saw a video yesterday of a girl singing Amazing Grace with a see through dress on that was slit up to her whatsit and I thought “what’s wrong with this picture?”.
Karl - July 3, 2021 1:58 pm
He (not she) said “I’ll love you till I die.” She told him “You’ll forget in time.”
Penn Wells - July 3, 2021 2:05 pm
Seems like an appropriate time to not only listen to, but watch (yes, there is a video – Egad) Old George sing “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?” After you’ve dried your eyes from He Stopped Loving Her… you’ll be reaching for more tissues after this one. Who, indeed?
DAVID A WILSON - July 3, 2021 2:39 pm
This writing is one of your best cause I con totally relate. I would write more however, you have already written it! THANKS, DAW
billllly - July 3, 2021 2:44 pm
Amen, Sean! Today’s country music leaves me cold. Perhaps it has something to do with my passing the three quarters of a century mark. A tidbit – I am a member of Western Writers of America. A few years ago we voted Ghost Rider in the Sky as the best western song ever. I always turn the volume up when it comes on the radio. Same with anything by Willie and Waylon and George and Johnny and Patsy and ….
Gigi - July 3, 2021 2:48 pm
Funny how songs can trigger such wonderful memories. Even a bad rendition of a Johnny Cash song makes me remember my grandfather and the hours we spent listening to 8 track tapes of Johnny and Saturday night when HeeHaw came on, was the best night of the week…
Viann Augustine - July 3, 2021 3:24 pm
That was so perfect- we’ll said/written – country/pop music blends together & just won’t make the timeless impression the real songs did
Jay H.Sharp - July 3, 2021 3:26 pm
A “new” reader to “Sean of the South,” I just finished “the Incredible Winston Browne” and thoroughly enjoyed it. What a great writer! I now have Stars of Alabama, and Will the Circle be Unbroken, and can’t put them down. Thanks for bringing back small town living (and dying) for all to experience.
Patricia Gibson - July 3, 2021 4:10 pm
It is hard for my generation these days. I am 72 and long for times when we didn’t have to hate each other because we were different. Love the old music❤️❤️Thanks for the Memories, Sean
Suellen - July 3, 2021 4:40 pm
I wasn’t raised on country music but I thoroughly enjoyed the Ken Burns special on PBS and I’ll never get tired of reading your stories about it.
Linda Moon - July 3, 2021 4:42 pm
The subject of old country music never gets tiresome for me. My Guy grew up on it…I did not. George Jones, Alan Jackson, and My Guy helped me to Go Country. But I’ve also kept my roots: Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown….just to name a few. “Oh Mercy” is one of my favorite collections from Robert Allen Zimmerman. So, thinking about all this that you told us about and the like-minded people who remember old men and older guys doesn’t make me feel depressed at all! I Feel Good! That’s why I like to read Sean of The South…to feel LIFE from all these stories.
Margaret - July 3, 2021 5:09 pm
LOVE the topic and completely agree with your observations that there is no country like the original.
Having been raised by a Merle Haggard aficionado, and having been raised to know and sing every lyric to every one of his songs, it pains me when I see you misspell his name. Please, please, please be more careful with the important stuff.
Gwen Monroe - July 3, 2021 5:58 pm
Amen. And don’t forget Vern Gosdin. Classic country gets to the heart. I don’t know what’s best, the instruments or the singers but together it’s just spiritual. This junk today is just that-junk.
Sandra Wolfe - July 3, 2021 6:24 pm
You have it together Sean. You have it together.!!!
Sue Adams - July 3, 2021 6:37 pm
You are dating yourself. When I started reading your posts I thought you were a young man.
Christopher Spencer - July 3, 2021 6:54 pm
Growing up I was a rock n roller, despised country music because idiot me thought the two music genera’s couldn’t exist together.
As I grew older and hopefully a little wiser I always thought the lyrics to a song should mean something and to tell a story.
And there have been many rock n roll songs that did just that.
But as I’ve gotten even older I have come to like, love and appreciate OLD country songs because the songs do mean something and do tell a story as well as any song ever written.
Rebecca Souders - July 3, 2021 7:22 pm
My dad was a crooner, so my early memories are of Bing. However, we did have an old 78 of Pistol Packin’ Momma… I can still sing that one. Another thought, here: Rick Nelson was well on his way to reviving the ol’ honky tonk music… some of his country offerings were pretty up there with those greats you listed, I think. Thanks for this trip down memory lane, Sean Dietrich. Keep it up!
Adrienne Possenti - July 3, 2021 8:16 pm
In addition to your daily column, I’m reading as many of your books as my local public library has for loan. If I may ask, why did your papa off himself & what did he do to your mama to get himself arrested before pulling the plug?
Chasity Davis Ritter - July 4, 2021 12:43 am
Adrienne if you read Sean’s book “Will the Circle be unbroken” it will explain everything
Chasity Davis Ritter - July 4, 2021 12:37 am
It’s so funny to read this one today… just like I’ve mentioned about going to church and the sermon being just whats in your heart and you needed to hear….. I had texted my cousin the lyrics to a Shooter Jennings song today. (Son of Waylon Jennings) and they go:
🎶 You were pretty as can be, sitting in the front seat
Looking at me, telling me you love me
And you’re happy to be with me on the 4th of July
We sang Stranglehold ’til the stereo
Couldn’t take no more of that rock and roll
So we put on a little George Jones and just sang along
He stopped loving her today
They placed a wreath upon his door
Soon they’ll carry him away
But he stopped loving her today🎶
Yeah…..that covers it for my holiday weekend!
David S Doom - July 4, 2021 1:46 am
The country singer I miss the most is Don Williams followed by Eddie Arnold and Jim Reeves singing Gospel
Darrell Dame - July 4, 2021 11:39 am
LindA - July 4, 2021 12:17 pm
Willie’s Roadhouse is the ONLY reason i keep Sirius radio, PERIOD!
Don Baker - July 4, 2021 5:46 pm
Thanks Sean for this. It took me back to the 3 years in the late 50’s that I was a member of the “Ozark Jubilee Promenaders”. Great memories! Don
Melissa Williams - July 4, 2021 10:10 pm
I am approaching 70 faster than Awesome Bill from Dawsonville. I grew up in Tennessee. My parents were Broadway musical, Episcopal hymnal, Louis Armstrong people. But I absorbed (like osmosis) Baptist/Methodist hymns along with George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Hank Snow. (I do confess, however, that I first heard Blue Kentucky Girl when Emmylou did it.) Don’t ever stop writing about stuff like this! (At least not till they carry me away!!)
Nolan Maxie - July 5, 2021 1:05 am
I can’t say much that hasn’t already been said. here. I’m past 80 by a year or two and my first recollection was “HonkeyTonk Angles” , then Kitty Wells’s “It Wasn’t God Who Made HonkeyTonk Angles.” Then “Hot Rod Lincoln”, “Froyline, Froyline”, “Dear John”, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” “Love Sich Blues.”to name a few, And on and on they go. I am Hard country from day one anD often was seen at the Louisiana Hayride on Saturday night listening to Johnny Horton and “Battle of New Orleans”….. Thanks Sean, love it.. Nolan Maxie, NE Texas
Joann Thompson - July 4, 2021 10:53 pm
I volunteer at a performance hall in San Antonio. Pre-Covid, I was on the left side of the stage when Kris Kristofferson performed. He was 80 years-old at the time. He stood there for 45 minutes with only his guitar and sang his standards, took a 20 minute break, and came back to sing 45 minutes more. It was amazing and refreshing to hear.
Steve McCaleb - July 5, 2021 12:54 am
What passes for county music these days is a disgraceful bucket of hog…. er slop. The closest any of this bunch of fake “country stars” ever came to country was watching reruns of HeeHaw. Where’s Radney Foster when you need him ? ‘Scuse me while I go somewhere and lock myself in with a copy of Del Rio Texas 1959 ‘til this “fake country” crapstorm passes. These drugstore fieldhands wouldn’t know a short from a goat !
mebee414gmailcom - September 1, 2021 1:49 am
Check out Cody Jinks….Randy Travis style…good lyrics
Steve McCaleb - July 5, 2021 1:02 am
SHOAT not short! I wish I could get my hands around the neck of that little spellcheck bozo in my phone!
Patricia Schwindt - July 6, 2021 3:49 am
I am so with you! That function assumes that I don’t know what word I want to type, and fills it in with whatever “IT” thinks I want. I read with great glee the other day that the guy who invented this autocorrect/spellcheck demon had died. I should say something nice, but I’ll just give him the standard “RIP”, rest in piss.
Gloria Rose - July 5, 2021 3:27 am
I heard two separate pieces today from Allen Jackson and believe he belongs on your list. Not only is there the sound of the steel guitar and fiddles but his words are truth and honest. Whether it is about eating bologna on white bread or the new one of getting old and giving thanks, he is still a poet who sings to our hearts about our lives.
Ginny Judson - July 5, 2021 2:45 pm
Preach my brother!
Sue Cronkite - July 5, 2021 3:16 pm
This is a memory bomb! I wrote a short story with a reference to Hank’s Lonesome Blues. Sent it to the revived Saturday Evening Post. Maybe they’ll print it. Maybe they won’t. But Hank sung it perfect: gonna jump in that river three times, but Lord I’m only coming up twice.
Patricia Schwindt - July 6, 2021 3:51 am
I know who Sadie Hawkins is or was. My high school used to have a once-a-year Sadie Hawkins dance! Finally gave the girls a chance! But that was several decades ago. I guess nowadays, the girls don’t hesitate to ask the boys out if they want to. For us, that was a big no-no.
Felicia Pulliam - July 7, 2021 3:22 pm
Yes sir, I agree with you! I was born and raised in Nashville. The early 60s and 70s was TRUE COUNTRY. George, Conway, Tammy, Loretta, Marty Robbins…. I remember the words to their songs by heart. I left Nashville in 2012,and don’t regret it. The new singers.. city girls wearing cowboy boots, and guys in baseball caps who all look the same. It’s so sad. I only listen to stations who play true country (the “oldies “).
Bill Harris - July 9, 2021 11:31 pm
Thank you Sean
CHARALEEN WRIGHT - July 10, 2021 1:50 am
kathyjackson2020 - September 1, 2021 12:40 am
Oh my. This is heartbreakingly beautiful. Thank you. I’m so glad I’m not alone in my grief over what happened to country music. My husband and went to Nashville for a couple of days with my brother and sister-in-law. We went downtown to hear the live music. It made me cry. And not in a good way. Every musician looked the same except for the position of their face piercings. There was the smell of marijuana everywhere. People were smoking it in plain sight. Young girls were wearing just enough to be legal. I kept listening for strains of Roy Acuff and Loretta Lynn, of George Jones and Merle Haggard. I didn’t hear it. I just heard what I refer to as head-banger music because it made me want to bang my head against the wall. And everyone sounded the same. They all sounded like they were trying to sound like somebody else. I probably won’t ever go back. Indeed, there was a murder on music row. 💔
Jan Noel-Smith - September 1, 2021 1:38 am
Completely agree. Listening to the good old stuff brings back so many memories! And a lot of them make me laugh as I realize how carefully my Dad explained what so many of the lyrics meant! ” What’s a ‘Low Rent Rendezvous,’ Dad?” “Why was the ring in a matchbox, Dad?” … poor fella!
Debbie - September 1, 2021 1:45 am
Try listening to Cody Jinks for GOOD country music
Amy - September 1, 2021 2:45 am
Amen amen amen! Can’t bare to listen and thatbis all in the Birmingham area to listen…so I turn it off unless its talk radio. I absolutely love good country after the 90’s it becomes useless!
Sharon Lee Wilson - September 1, 2021 3:14 pm
Exactly why I stopped listening to country music…..I’m not familiar with many of the new artists and really don’t care to be. I’m a 66 years young Canadian woman and grew up listening to my Dad and his cousin play their guitars and sing awesome “Country & Western” tunes, and I fell in love and sang along with the music of the legends….they just don’t make them like they used to. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure what the heck happened to most of our music genres nowadays…all gone to hell in a handbasket. Love your posts, Sean.