George Jones - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


            George Jones was quite possibly the greatest country singer of all time, a man whose colossal interpretive gifts have surpassed the achievements of his forebears--and idols--Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. Born September 12, 1931 in Saratoga, Texas, Jones endured a miserable childhood of extreme poverty and physical abuse. His father would often come home drunk, awaken his son and beat the boy until he agreed to sing for him. The complex psychological ramifications of this--an intertwining of fear, love, hate and music --perhaps account for Jones’ equally complex brand of artistic expression as an adult. As Jones once said, it seemed to him that  “country music was a strange power over everybody that loves it, and is about the only thing in the world that you can curse and still love at the same time.”


            Jones’ own ‘strange power’ manifested itself early and as a pre-adolescent he was working for tips as a street singer in nearby Beaumont, and made his late 1940’s radio debut on Jasper, Texas station KTXJ. He wed in 1950, but booze and violence ended the union a year later. Jailed several times for ducking alimony obligations, Jones escaped by entering the Marine Corps, and stationed in California, he gained valuable exposure to the West Coast‘s progressive country scene. Discharged in 1954, he returned to Texas where he signed a deal with small Houston label, Starday, and cut his first record (“No Money in This Deal“). The next year, “Why Baby Why” made the Top 5 (the first of some 140 chart entries Jones would ultimately release) and he soon moved on to Nashville and a contract with Mercury. Like dozens of other up and comers, his vocals still exhibited a close fealty to Hank Williams’ primitivism, but on singles like the atmospheric “Color of the Blues,” and the 1959 number one hit “White Lightning,” Jones was increasingly coming into his stylistic own.


            About this same time, he hired Ohio-born musician Donny Young as bassist and harmony singer, and over the course of non-stop touring and some fifteen albums recorded together, Young supplied a new influence--his distinct approach to singing. He re-shaped the lyric’s vowels with a colorful, unusually contoured manner of phrasing and Jones quickly adapted it for his own instantly recognizable, modern approach to communicative honky-tonk (Young changed his name to Johnny Paycheck, went on to tremendous success and remained a lifelong friend of Jones). This extraordinary evolution was captured on record, and is easily traced from 1960’s “Window Up Above” to 1964‘s “The Race is On,” one of the most remarkable, steady artistic up-shifts of any pop music genre. During this period Jones also released the classic “She Thinks I Still Care,” which has become the most frequently played country song of all time


            Now recording for the new Musicor label, Jones churned one masterpiece after another, mixing frantic up-tempo novelties with intensely emotional tales of loss, shame and misery so dark they often assumed dirge-like qualities.  Jones never changed his hard-drinking, hard-living ways and there are ten thousand wild Jones stories. During a dressing room conversation with the country star Webb Pierce, Jones grew tired of the singer’s boasting about recent expensive acquisitions. “Hell, Webb, I flush more’n that down the toilet every week,” Jones said, producing a fistful of one hundred dollar bills, stepping into an adjacent restroom and matching his word with action. Jones was the new role model for post-Hank Williams hillbilly self-destruction, and everyone from his fans to Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard regarded him with a mixture of awe and admiration. Despite Opry star Roy Acuff’s long-standing monopoly of the title, Jones was now the real king of country music.


            When Jones met the fast-rising country princess Tammy Wynette, it was an electrifying moment, and Jones took decisive action. Visiting the home of Wynette and her then-husband, Jones took umbrage at the tension his presence clearly generated between the bickering couple. He reacted by flipping over their living room coffee table and hollering “She may be your wife, goddamnit, but I love her!” That was in 1969 and they were married shortly thereafter; when they began touring together, their price reached $30,000 a night. When they began recording together at Epic three years later, Jones and Wynette’s brand of gilded corn set a new standard and, under the coolly calculated hand of producer Billy Sherrill, continued to raise that standard higher. From their first collaboration in 1972, Me and the First Lady, the pair turned in records of such perfection that they surpassed not only every other duet team, they nearly eclipsed each other’s solo careers.


            Jones and Wynette were so artistically synchronized that, at the team’s peak, any distinction between personal and professional life or private and public image disappeared altogether. The key to their 1970’s greatness was the dimension of personal reality each brought to a song. Jones’ raw, brooding persona made a rich counterpoint to Wynette’s icy, almost craftily neurotic intensity. The way Sherrill presented them on record--rich arrangements with plenty of open space for them to wander and rhapsodize through--only heightened the impact of the drama, particularly after the couple divorced  yet continued singing together.


            While Jones and Wynette cut a lot of heavy-handed schmaltz together, they always managed to transport listeners into a bruised yet beatific musical realm. “Golden Ring,” a post-divorce hit that transformed soap-opera fodder into genuine tragedy, is a prime example of their collaboration’s alchemical effect. Others, like “Take Me,” “We’re Gonna Hold On,” and their re-make of Tin Pan Alley oldie “Near You,” formed a series of warm romantic pledges characterized by a gentle, dream-like quality. Despite stiff competition in the duet arena from Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, the sheer consistent quality of the Jones-Wynette duo was never surpassed.


            The poisonous, even bizarre details of their off-stage life were legendary. Jones would get drunk and smash up the house; Wynette would empty all the liquor bottles and hide all the car keys in attempt to keep him sober, resulting in his fabled ride on a John Deere lawn mower in search of booze. The Jones home was not unaccustomed to gunfire, screams in the night, tears, destruction of property, and full-blown chaos. After the couple’s 1975 divorce, Jones filed for bankruptcy and also brought a suit charging that Wynette and her manager engaged in a conspiracy to destroy his career (nothing came of it).


            By 1977, Wynette had her own problems. Her own record sales and popularity were waning and, worse, she was plagued by a series of unexplained break-ins and stalker-style torment. Someone entered her house more than fifteen times and repeatedly scrawled “pig,“ “whore” and “bitch” across mirrors and television screens. Fires mysteriously broke out in her home and tour bus. The harassment apparently culminated in an unsolved October 1978 kidnapping. Wynette claimed she had been pulled from her car by an masked, armed man, who cracked her jaw with a blow to the face before dumping her in a remote stretch of countryside--no ransom was demanded, no arrest made. Many believed Jones was responsible, others that Wynette, whose career was faltering, had staged the whole thing herself.  Jones denied any involvement, and by 1983, Wynette’s husband, George Richey, exonerated the singer, and the couple announced they would never again publicly discuss the abduction.


            The divorce left Jones a wreck, and his drinking was now accompanied by a heavy cocaine habit, openly acknowledged by the singer. There were numerous arrests and hospitalizations and he missed so many gigs that he earned a new nickname: No Show Jones (he could usually be found, sloppy drunk, in a tavern not from the SRO venue). Ironically, he was also making the greatest recordings of his career. Jones was so chronically wasted that his weight dropped to ninety seven pounds, yet he remained an artistic Superman, recording his first million selling disc “He Stopped Loving Her Today” in 1980. This haunting, masterly performance also resulted in his first ever award wins (and it was a bumper crop); he took the  Best Male Country Vocal Grammy, two Academy of Country Music awards (best male vocal, single of the year) and two consecutive Best Male Vocalist awards from Nashville’s Country Music Association (the CMA, of course, inducted Jones into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992).


            Jones was on a roll, recording hit after hit throughout the 1980s—all vintage Jones, with titles “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will),” “Still Doin’ Time,” “Same Ole Me,” “Tennessee Whisky.” Each lodged at either number one or well into the Top Ten. He also released Yesterday’s Wine, a superb 1982 album with Merle Haggard  (the single went to number one on the country charts) and after marrying fourth wife Nancy in 1983, he publicly claimed to have quit drinking and drugs. A move to MCA in 1990 found Jones still capable of churning out solid releases but in 1999, the singer almost died when he ran his SUV off the road outside of Nashville. Investigators found a half-empty bottle of vodka under the seat. 


            With serious injuries that included a deep cut in his liver and a punctured lung, physicians said he was at “death’s door.” Incredibly, Jones not only survived  but returned to performing not long after. In June of 1999, Jones released the great The Cold Hard Truth (Asylum), an album that, under the circumstances, caught the world’s ear. The stunning, and eerily timely, single  “Choices,” made his highest chart entry in years, and won a Grammy plus an invitation to perform at the CMA awards. However, told that time constraints would not allow him to sing the entire song, Jones pointedly declined the offer.


            Jones had, in fact, grown increasingly outspoken about the sorry state of contemporary country radio and it’s refusal to play any new songs by him, Haggard, Willie Nelson, or any traditional country performer. Jones had never really cared what others think of him and remained unimpressed by wealth, fame and prestige. He essentially lived for country music’s sake. Did he ever really quit drinking? Some nights you just couldn't be sure, but Jones still out-sung everyone in the business, and it is extremely unlikely that anyone will ever come along to usurp his hard-won title as the King of country music. Sadly, the wear and tear of a hard life caught up to him, and George Jones passed away on April 26, 2013. He was 81 years old.

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