Jonesin ‘for jazz | SDPB
I heard a lot of country music growing up in South Dakota. Not only were country songs all over the radio and TV shows like Big laugh, but I also drew on my mom’s collection of classic country records and enjoyed them almost as much as my dad’s jazz albums. Although jazz and country are two very different musical genres with their own traditions, forms and history, they are both deeply rooted in the American cultural experience. I am always intrigued by jazz artists who find new ways to interpret country songs, like Ray Charles on classical Modern sounds in country and western music and guitarist John Scofield on his 2016 album Land of the Elderly.
Los Angeles-based singer Staci Griesbach also considers jazz and country to be American musical treasures and specializes in reinterpreting country music from a jazz perspective. She grew up on a working farm in Wisconsin and although she played in her school’s jazz orchestras and sang in jazz choirs, she says country music was “the roots of my upbringing.” It was later in life that she got really interested in jazz and absorbed it like a sponge. Over the past two years, she has combined her love of jazz and country with a pair of remake albums made famous by legendary Patsy Cline and successful country star Shania Twain. For his latest album, My George Jones Songbook, Griesbach tackles 14 songs from the catalog of one of the most legendary artists in country music.
Griesbach says reimagining songs from country canon and incorporating them into jazz helped her find her own unique and authentic voice.
“While I was here in Los Angeles doing concerts and doing Great American Popular Songbook standards, I felt a little bit naked,” she says. “I was coming back from a concert and felt like I hadn’t found the connection I was looking for. And one day I came home and put on a Patsy Cline album and it was like a light bulb went out. At the time, I was doing a homage to Ella Fitzgerald and I started to think to myself, “Wait a minute, isn’t Patsy Cline a bit like the Ella Fitzgerald of country music? And I thought maybe I could look at Patsy Cline’s catalog. And so that sort of thing started this whole road that I’ve been on, which takes a look at what I call another great American popular songbook.
To help him develop his interpretations of George Jones songs, Griesbach brought in some of LA’s top musicians, a few of whom also worked on his albums Patsy Cline and Shania Twain. They include pianists Jeremy Siskind, Tamir Hendelman, Otmaro Ruiz and saxophonist Rahsaan Barber who all wrote the arrangements for the album.
“The way I work is to put together a big picture of what an album is going to sound like, then I go song by song and create a roadmap of what I’m looking for in the song,” she explains. “And then I’m going to sit down with the arranger and have this dialogue. But then that’s really their prowess. They are amazing musicians and they are the ones who help me take my vision and put it on paper. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to sing these beautiful tunes.
Country music has a rich tradition of heart-wrenching ballads and few singers can tear your heart apart with tales of divorce, cheating and lost love as completely as George Jones does on classic records like “The Grand Tour,” “A Picture of You Without Me,” and “A Good Year for the Roses,” which are among Jones’ hits that Griesbach sings on his new album.
“One of the things Jones embodies is this ability to tell a story and draw us in,” she says. “[In his autobiography] he writes that he really wanted to sing ballads. When he was young rockabilly and rock and roll started and Elvis Presley went up. And everyone wanted something a little more rock. And he really liked ballads. And country music is storytelling and I think that’s what keeps me rooted; the art of communicating through performance and music. It’s so beautiful in a story that’s relatable.
The album also includes a performance of George Jones’ 1980 hit “He Stopped Loving Her Today”. It’s one of the saddest country songs of all time and a record that still chokes me, even after hearing it at least a hundred times. Griesbach’s version also makes you cry with a sparse arrangement featuring the melancholy piano of Jeremy Siskind and the plaintive cello of Artyom Manukyan.
“It was the first song on the Jeremy album and I started working on it,” Griesbach says. “When I started rehearsing this one, singing and trying to find my best performance was difficult. Once I hit that first chorus, if I didn’t have a box of tissues handy, I was in trouble.
My George Jones Songbook is not all shot. There is a sweet, bossa nova rendition of “Walk Through This World with Me”; a funky, brassy version of Jones’ hit with ex-wife Tammy Wynette, “Golden Ring”; and a playful version of one of Jones’ early hits, “White Lightning”. But Griesbach says there is always something special about his heart-wrenching ballads.
“There are a lot of variations on My George Jones Songbook. I tried to show as much as possible how his songbook could be interpreted in so many different ways, while still keeping the story behind what he and the songwriters created. But I think there is a beauty in listening to a song with a really poignant message that makes you feel something. Especially now in the pandemic and we’re all just a little raw. I think sometimes crying while listening to a song and thinking about how you feel is a beautiful thing.
But even as Griesbach finds new ways to interpret county music, she continues to sing standards from the Great American Songbook. This summer, she launched “The Songbook Singles”, a new series of performances available in digital form.
“I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that I love to sing the Great American Songbook,” she says. “The songbook series of singles allowed me to release a single that was then part of my American songbook. It could be a Great American Songbook standard, it could be something from Carole King or Linda Ronstadt or some other 20th century American artist. But for the most part, right now, I’m really focused on keeping the vibe of the Great American Songbook going.
While Griesbach enjoys singing the great songs of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Johnny Mercer, and other great songwriters and lyricists, she admits that it can be overwhelming singing songs that have already been reinvented countless times. She says singing country music gives her the freedom to do something distinctive by taking the same approach jazz musicians do with standards.
“Unlike country music, jazz brings a sense of reimaging [these standard songs] and make them your own. Jazz as a genre encourages this creativity. In county music, when you walk into a honky tonk in Texas or a bar in Chicago and they play ‘The Grand Tour’, it’s going to sound very similar. And so this is the opportunity that we have, I think, to look at this great collection of country music songs and to reinvent it. Because the original Great American Songbook we know and love from Broadway, Gershwin and Irving Berlin has been reinvented so many times that I consider this collection of country songs to be a new repertoire.
Griesbach says singing these great country songs that haven’t been reinvented countless times has helped her develop as an artist and build a relationship with her audience.
“When someone comes to one of my concerts, what is they trying to hear? What will they expect? Every artist works there throughout his career. It’s not like it’s a goal and suddenly you get there and now you find yourself finding your voice. Your voice, your performance is constantly evolving.