BY PETER COOPER
It doesn’t seem fair to George Jones, this circumstance in which people stand and cheer him for who he is and what he’s done.
They did that recently at the gleaming John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The Washington power elite hailed Jones as a performer of uncommon cultural relevance, while the man once nicknamed No Show stood near the president of the United States.
Jones, commonly thought to be country music’s greatest singer, received the nation’s most prominent arts award at the Kennedy Center Honors celebration this month.
“I appreciate the honor, don’t get me wrong,” says Jones, 77, sitting in a favorite chair in his Williamson County, Tenn., home. “But I feel kind of out of place. It seems like there’s a lot of people that would deserve it more than I do. I messed up my life way back there, drinking and boozing and all that kind of stuff.”
To sit and talk with the Jones of today as he spins stories while drinking bottled water (George Jones brand, course) is to wonder about how a fellow with such an easy laugh and kind disposition could have caused so much trouble.
“I got to my lowest point, where I knew in my thinking that there was no way back at all for me,” Jones says. “I’d thrown everything away. I was down to 105 pounds, and I tried to put puzzles together to make some way out that could turn out positive. And there was nothing.”
And yet there was something. Perhaps Jones’ was a talent too bountiful to squander. Someone of a religious nature might declare that it was a gift beyond the man, that it wasn’t his to squander at all.
“He is the spirit of country music, plain and simple,” wrote country scholar Nick Tosches.
‘I felt hard times’
“People don’t like to talk about sad things, you know,” Jones says. “But you can sing about those things, and if you hit the nail on the head, then you’re going to sell some records. I felt hard times, and I felt them in songs.”
Gram Parsons, the country-rock pioneer, used to stop West Hollywood parties in the 1960s by putting a sad Jones record on a turntable, then tearing up and proclaiming, “That’s the King of Broken Hearts.”
Years later, singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale penned “The King of Broken Hearts” in tribute to Jones and Parsons. It was recorded by George Strait and, recently, by Lee Ann Womack. “He recalls how his heart got broken and how it’s still that way/ The King of Broken Hearts is so sad and wise,” Lauderdale wrote.
Jones said that song probably used to fit him.
“No, I don’t feel that way, not now,” he says. “Maybe wiser. But not sad. I think during all that time I thought life was sad, and I got so used to it. It was like, you’d have a couple of drinks and life’s happy and then it got sadder than hell. Went from one extreme to the other.”
Jones has been sober since a 1999 car crash that nearly killed him. It’s reasonable to assume that the old King of Broken Hearts might be leery of singing songs of anguish and toil.
“I’d rather sing a sad song than eat,” he says.
Back on track
There was one song that was too sad even for Jones: the mournful “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a composition that producer Billy Sherrill kept trying to push on the unimpressed singer.
The song catapulted Jones back to the top of the country charts in 1980, giving him his first solo No. 1 hit in five years (he had topped the charts twice during that time courtesy of duets with Tammy Wynette, with whom he shared a famously unsuccessful marriage).
“He Stopped Loving Her Today” became Jones’ signature hit, and it breathed new life into his career at a time when Jones seemed to be doing his best to sabotage his real life.
Friends Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings finally talked him out of utter despondence and helped pay some hefty bills, but it was Jones’ 1983 marriage to Nancy Sepulveda that would be the turning point.
Jones smiles a lot these days. He was jolly in the dark decades as well. It’s just that the good humor was derailed by foolishness. For the music’s sake, he recalls how his heart got broken, even if it isn’t still that way.