He doesn't wear rhinestone-studded Nudie suits or a Stetson hat. Even on stage, Courtney Granger looks like the guy you'd call to fix your computer. But when Courtney Granger opens his mouth, all that falls away, and George Jones comes tumbling out.
The Eunice, Louisiana, native spends a great deal of his time onstage, appearing with the Pine Leaf Boys and Balfa Toujours. In both outfits, the spotlight hovers elsewhere. Wilson Savoy is out in front with the Pine Leafs, an imposing figure on accordion, piano, and vocals. Legendary Cajun fiddler Dewey Balfa's daughter (and Granger's cousin) Christine Balfa on rhythm guitar and vocals and husband/accordionist/fiddler Dirk Powell are the centerpieces of Balfa Toujours.
But all Granger has to do in either band is tuck a fiddle under his chin or open his mouth, and the spotlight swings around and and stays locked on him for the duration. He comes by it naturally, born into Cajun royalty, Dewey Balfa's grandnephew. Fiddling is Cajun tradition, but classic country is a part of the culture as well, swapped back and forth from the areas the Cajuns settled in. Granger mentioned in a recent interview, during World War II, that Texas Swing made inroads into Cajun culture influenced by Bob Wills' music when many Cajuns went to Port Arthur, Texas, to work. The Cajun influence has long been recognized in country music, via artists including Hank Williams, Moon Mullican, and even Roy Acuff.
Granger demonstrates that on his solo all-country debut, Beneath Still Waters (out Oct. 14 on Valcour Records), with a cover of “Warm Red Wine,” first recorded in '49 by Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Wills' version blends big band and country, its plodding waltz-tempo fiddle fading into a a muted trumpet solo, followed by weepy pedal steel, punctuated by some of the longest ululations of Wills signature "Ahh-haaa" on record. George Jones covered it in '62 on George Jones Sings Bob Wills, but his version is more straightforward -- a lonesome ode to alcoholism accompanied by a tinkly piano and a weepy steel:
The prison of stone with its cold iron bars
Is no more than a prison than mine
I'm a prisoner of drink who will never escape
From the chains of the warm red wine.
Granger's version is slower, even more mournful, with a rattly piano and sobbing fiddle underlining the stark lyrics. Granger has said that he never tried to sound like Jones, and although his moans don't reverberate in his sinus cavity as much as Jones' did, the resemblence is still so close its eerie. But Granger's work doesn't come off like an impersonation; it sounds genuine, just heavily shaded by George Jones' shadow.
He's chosen a lot of Jones material to cover -- not the big hits, but stuff any serious country fan would recognize. The title cut was recorded by Jones in '68 on My Country. Granger's version moves along just a tad faster, but otherwise is a pretty much note-for-note cover -- no easy feat, but he injects just as much heartbreak and sorrow as the Possum's original.
Even when not channeling Jones, Granger chooses material that would have been very comfortable for Jones. Waylon took a whack at “Listen They're Playing My Song" on '67's The One and Only Waylon Jennings with hymn-like gravitas, and Ray Charles took it on with his '68 single. Charles' version was sweetened by violins and delivered in a style more like Jones than his usual.
But Granger walks away with this one. He's channeling Jones, all high lonesome, stacked up against a twin fiddle solo that sounds it was scraped up off the floor of some backwater bayou shack, moaning the some of the saddest lyrics in country:
Taps being played
By a soldier's grave
So sad, it torments your soul
Listen to that North wind moan
Tonight is so dark and cold
Somewhere a siren
Cuts through the night
It sounds like the whole world's gone wrong.
Listen: they're playing my song.
Granger even Jonses up Hazel Dickens' “Don't Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There,” a duet with Dickens' old collaborator Alice Gerrard on a version that totally transforms Dickens' plaintive folky original into a country ballad fit for George and Tammy.
Jones fans will love it, and everybody else who loves classic country will gobble it up as well. Take a listen and pass it on -- this stuff is too good to keep all to yourself.