PT 2: WHAT SAMMY KERSHAW LEARNED FROM GEORGE JONES
In Part 1 of our interview with Sammy Kershaw, the celebrated Country traditionalist reflected on the high bar he set for himself with Do You Know Me? – A Tribute to George Jones. Released July 22 on Big Hit Records, the album finds the elusive middle ground between imitating and celebrating a unique and peerless performer.
In this second installment of our CMACloseUp.com exclusive, Kershaw discusses what he learned as a singer from watching Jones and the challenge for young singers to find meaning in the works of an artist grounded in a bygone era.
As a young performer, what did you learn from watching George Jones sing?
Of course, we don’t do this anymore, but when I first started in the business, the musicians used to play with dynamics. You don’t have that anymore. It makes it hard for the house engineer to make the band sound good if he can’t turn you up or down. I can remember standing on the side of the stage, watching Ray Price sing. His musicians played so soft that they could talk to each other, like you and I are talking to each other. And the house guy could turn this up and bring that down.
I watched Jones work that microphone. His band would play soft like that. They could talk to each other and say, “Hey, we’re gonna do this song next,” while they were playing a song! And Jones would sing with that dynamic. He would work that microphone in and out. I watched that, and still to this day, I do that. My house guy has to tell me, “Stay on that microphone for me tonight, man.” All the old artists played that way. They all still had their hearing. Mine is gone; I don’t have much hearing left. But everybody wants “more me, more me, more me.” The bass player says, “I want more me!” The drummer is beating the shit out of everything he can see. There’s no more dynamics, man. The lower you play onstage, the better your mix is going to be to the people out there.
So dynamics are important. But what about what George actually sang?
You felt it. Everybody felt it. You know, people would buy a damn ticket to go see George Jones knowing he wasn’t going to show up! Everybody just felt George Jones sing. They felt all those sad songs. They felt the white lightning. He just had a way of selling a song, man.
Is it important to live the kind of life described in a song in order to make it work?
I don’t know, because I haven’t recorded a song I haven’t lived. So I can’t answer the question honestly. All I know is, I don’t care how great the song is, if I haven’t lived it, I ain’t cutting it! But you’ve got to remember, I’ve been doing this for 44 years now. There’s not very many things I haven’t lived anymore.
Young singers today often have different kinds of upbringing than previous generations had. If it’s all about living the life that songs describe, how do they deal with that?
That’s why I keep cutting one or two albums a year of Country Music. You’ve got to. You have to try to expose them to Country Music, man. It’s our responsibility to do it, and I’m going to keep on doing it. It may be another 5 or 6-year-old kid who continues it for me down the road from something he hears that I cut last year or whatever.
If you missed the first of the two-part series, you can check it out by clicking HERE.
Top photo: Sammy Kershaw enjoys himself on the Riverfront Stage on Sunday, June 11, at the 2006 CMA Music Festival. Theresa Montgomery / CMA
Watch Sammy Kershaw’s personal tribute to George Jones, “The Route That I Took”: