KENCEN '08: GEORGE JONES

12/05/08

The Washington Times

The setting is the piney woods of East Texas, early 1940s. A young boy, roughly 10 years old, has persuaded his parents to let him crawl into bed with them on Saturday nights. Nothing to do with night terrors or fear of darkness - the only radio in the house is in their room.

The boy knows he will nod off before his favorite program, the “Grand Ole Opry,” comes on the airwaves. So he says to Mama, “Make sure you wake me up before Bill Monroe comes on.”

Follow up:

Mama complies - and her son listens, rapt. He’s given a guitar. He picks out the melody lines of country-gospel favorites like “Farther Along.” A Sunday school teacher shows him basic chords. The music of Hank Williams is discovered. Gigs in taverns and honky tonks ensue.

George Jones, now 77, has enjoyed one of the most prolific and successful careers in country music - 166 singles on Billboard’s country-music chart, including 14 No. 1s. Yet he’s still curled up next to that bedside radio. “My heart, soul and feelings are in traditional country,” Mr. Jones says from his home near Nashville, Tenn.

Like Frank Sinatra, who famously praised Mr. Jones as “the second-greatest singer in the world,” he has the kind of voice - a sturdy, plaintive, pitch-perfect baritone - that owns its content.

Over the course of a tumultuous half-century in the business, he has lent that voice to more than 1,000 songs - not all of them top-notch, he readily concedes. “God knows I had my share of bad ones,” he says, chuckling.


George Jones

Through the hits, flops and everything in between, George Jones steadfastly remained George Jones. The ex-jarhead of the ’50s, with his crew cut and rhinestone-decorated country-Western suits, made subtle concessions to the countrypolitan era of the ’60s and ’70s - slightly wavy hair, pyramidal Elvis sideburns. But he hewed, stubbornly, to hard-core country - to the point that slick-growing Music Row seemed, by the late ’80s, finally to have bid him adieu.

However, something happened to Mr. Jones on the way to becoming a has-been: He emerged as something more like a monument instead.

Younger, like-minded singers such as George Strait and Alan Jackson came to look to Mr. Jones as the standard-bearer for honesty and purity of expression, along with the likes of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings.

“These new artists here in Nashville, they know how I feel about real country,” Mr. Jones says. “And they know how I feel about what they’re doing. But we don’t hold that against each other.”

Mr. Jones doesn’t do hard feelings.

Or regrets.

•••

Mr. Jones started singing on local Beaumont, Texas, radio when he was about 16 years old. He backed a husband-and-wife team by the name of Eddie and Pearl. “They acted as my guardians,” he recalls. “Otherwise, I couldn’t play in the honky-tonks.”

Singing had been a way of life in the Jones household. “My dad would come home with a few toddies [recipe: bourbon, lemon juice, honey, water] in him, and we’d all sing together,” he says. “I’d sing harmony with my older sister, Doris. She would always make me sing the high parts.”

At the Eddie-and-Pearl gigs, he was afforded a solo spot or two. Audiences liked what they heard and soon began requesting more.

“Next thing I knew, I was with a boy named Jake Marino, and we did our own little tavern pickin’ and singin’ together,” Mr. Jones says. “We just sang up a storm. I did Hank Williams songs, and he did Ernest Tubb.

“By then, I was playing lead guitar. That’s when I met Hank Williams.”

Mr. Jones’ memory is sharp - and, no surprise, he’s as compelling a raconteur as he is a singer.

“He came to town, and the program director at KRIC in Beaumont knew him personally and talked Hank into coming by and doing a song on the radio show in the afternoon to promote his date that night.

“He stayed for the longest time; there wasn’t nothing phony or stuck-up about him. The funniest thing is, I practiced and practiced all week to learn to play the lead-guitar part behind him on ‘Wedding Bells.’ The mike came out of the ceiling in those days. He stood on one side of the mike, I got on the other. I’m ready to do all these pretty runs in there. I looked at him, and I was in shock. All I could do was stand there and stare at him. He finished that song, and I never hit the first note.”

(This was, mind you, long before extracurricular mayhem prevented Mr. Jones from hitting notes or, indeed, showing up for gigs altogether.)

The Texan country-Western impresario Harold “Pappy” Daily got wind of this George Jones and urged him to audition for his Starday Records label after fulfilling his commitment to the U.S. Marines.

“As soon as I got out, I got in touch with them,” Mr. Jones says. “We put out a couple of records that didn’t do nothing. In late ‘55, we came out with ‘Why Baby Why,’ which got covered by Webb Pierce and Red Sovine.

“It helped me make a little money, because I was co-writer. Even my little old label carried me to No. 4, so I did pretty good. But it was helped out a lot by Webb, and I’ve always appreciated that.”

Mr. Daily and Mr. Jones shifted operations to Mercury Records, and from there, the string of hits began in earnest. Mr. Jones - who for reasons uncertain picked up the nickname “Possum” - notched his first No. 1 single in 1959 with “White Lightning.” He topped the country chart again and again with iconic singles such as “Tender Years,” “She Thinks I Still Care” and “The Race Is On.”

He became a master of the country ballad, an ability he attributes to Mr. Williams’ influence.

“I cherished Hank Williams’ singing so much,” he says. “I loved everything that he put out. That’s what really made me go for the sad songs, because he was touching the hearts of every poor, hardworking man in those days with his singing and writing. Even the fun songs were about everyday working people who loved to raise a little hell on Saturday nights.”

Raising hell, too, became a Jones specialty.

He had seen the breakup of two marriages by the time he met his third wife and hit-making duet partner, Tammy Wynette. His consumption of alcohol and his violent temper were legendary by this point.

Second wife Shirley Ann Corley once tried mightily to prevent her husband from driving in an episode immortalized in a 1993 Vince Gill song called “One More Last Chance.” Not to be deterred from a liquor run, Mr. Jones mounted a riding lawn mower and putt-putted down a country road for more than an hour.

He can laugh about it now.

“That was a little lawn mower - a little Cub Cadet, 10-horsepower. I’d been on a binge for a couple weeks. I came home, and they knew what to expect, so they hid all my vehicles, even the big tractor. I suffered for three or four hours, needing that pick-’em-up.

“All of a sudden, I looked out there and saw that little lawn mower I had for around the house. I said, ‘No, they took the key out that thing, too.’ But I went out there finally and checked it out. The key was in it, and it started right up. So I just took off.”

Mr. Jones married the late Miss Wynette in 1969 and began a decades-long association with Epic Records and another key producer, Billy Sherrill. Home life was turbulent, touring life chaotic - Mr. Jones by 1970 had added cocaine to an abusive diet.

Still, the hits kept coming: “The Grand Tour,” “The Door” and, with Miss Wynette, “We’re Gonna Hold On,” “Golden Ring” and “Near You.”

The latter two singles came after Mr. Jones’ and Miss Wynette’s 1975 divorce - but the collaboration was not necessarily amicable. Mr. Jones was estranged from the couple’s daughter, Georgette - a painful, distant relationship whose eventual happy resolution is chronicled in a new duet performed by both Joneses, “You and Me and Time.”

•••

The salve of time means that present-day George Jones laughs a lot, feels content. “When you look back on all of it today, you’re so thankful you lived through it and got over all that mess and finally learned the right way to live,” he says.

Still, the travails of “No Show Jones,” as the chronic gig-skipper eventually was dubbed, were no laughing matter. He says he has the nature of “a lonely person"; alcohol and drugs were all too easily available when “everything stacks up on you.” On a daily basis, he would try to drink away his problems - and proceed to “add about 10 more.”

He credits his current wife of 25 years, Nancy Jones, with helping him finally live something like a stable life. Recovery was not without its fits and starts; stints in rehab were followed by relapses.

Two or three months before his near-fatal alcohol-related car wreck in March 1999, he says, he remembers walking to a spot in the woods of his Franklin, Tenn., property and praying.

“I prayed to the good Lord to straighten me up one way or the other - even if He had to hit me on the head with a sledgehammer,” he says.

“And you know, that’s the first thing I thought of when I came to my senses about seven days after I got taken into the hospital from the car wreck. I remember that prayer and what I begged Him to do. I tell everybody, ‘I didn’t know He was gonna hit me so hard.’”

Mr. Jones’ work schedule since then has been surprisingly robust. He plays more than 100 dates a year in the United States and Europe and keeps up a steady flow of record releases.

Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992, he was awarded a National Medal of Arts by President Bush in 2002.

Mr. Jones also has symbolically joined the 21st century: He’s signed to an independent label, Bandit Records.

The former journeyman painter who says it was years before he realized someone could earn a living at singing heartily reports of the indie experience: “I’ve made more money out of that than all the rest of them.”

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