NPT, together with Nashville and country music lovers everywhere — and all music lovers, really — mourn today the passing of legend George Jones at age 81. Much will be written and said about Jones today and in the days and weeks ahead, but one of the first things we thought of this morning when learning of his passing was the artist Wayne White’s sculpture/installation Big Lectric to Keep Me Cool While I Sleep, which he installed in the Rice Gallery in Houston in the Fall of 2009. The image of the installation is still fresh in our minds from the Neil Berkeley-directed documentary, Beauty is Embarrassing, which screened at the Nashville Film Festival in 2012 and eventually aired on Independent Lens. In the doc, White talks of “the world’s largest George Jones head” in the context of bringing humor into fine art. And it definitely is humorous and fun. But it’s also reverential and a lovely tribute to Jones.
The title of the piece, Big Lectric to Keep Me Cool While I Sleep, comes from Jones’ song, “Ragged but Right,” which White says was stuck in his head while visiting Houston in the summer. “I kept thinking of hot Houston nights before air conditioning and the young George Jones in this city – full of crazy artistic passion and making music history,” said White in the Rice Gallery’s press materials. The installation includes a twenty-two-foot puppet head resembling a young, flat-topped Jones, circa 1950. The massive head sits sleeping on its side, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling, billboard-style lettering. “It’s a roadside attraction, a museum relic of a lost world, and a big, weird toy still in its box,” said White.
Visitors to the installation could pull a rope that opened the sculpture’s mouth, from which came a blast of cool, refreshing air. That was Jones’ voice. The very embodiment of a broken heart — Jim Lauderdale referred to him as the “King of Broken Hearts” in the tribute song he wrote for George Strait and Lee Ann Womack to sing — comforting our own broken hearts. Then and now.