July 11, 2012

BOOKS: He Stopped Loving Her Today, Jack Isenhour (2011)

George Jones recorded "He Stopped Loving Her Today" in 1980, and it's generally considered one of the great country records. Isenhour gives us the "pretty-much totally true story" of how it came to be.

It was a song that no one thought would be a hit -- too morbid and gloomy -- and the recording process was painful. Jones in 1980 was at the depths of his problems with booze and cocaine and couldn't learn the song (he kept trying to sing it to the tune of "Help Me Make It Through the Night"); when he did finally get the tune down, it turned out that although he could sing just fine while drunk, he couldn't handle the spoken verse at all.

Purists complained that the record wasn't country at all (those violins! the background singers! a freakin' woodblock, for chrissake!), which Isenhour uses as the jumping-off point for a terrific discussion of authenticity in country music, and the perpetual "those confounded kids today don't know what real country music sounds like" grumbling of fans.

We also get a crash course in the history of country music, a look inside the economics of Nashville songwriters and session musicians, and an exploration of why the live performance is so often disappointing when compared to the record.

Isenhour's style is casual and friendly, more so than you'd expect from a university press, but the book is solidly researched, filled with unlikely (but relevant) cultural references ranging from Milli Vanilli to Charles Wuorinen. It's a charming, lively, thoroughly entertaining book.

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