“He lives and breathes country music. It’s a religion to him,” says Nancy Jones, wife of country music legend George Jones . And to countless singers and fans alike, George Jones is country music. With over 150 chart singles to his credit, he’s the quintessential singer and his influence can be heard in the vocal stylings of artists such as Alan Jackson, Joe Diffie, Sammy Kershaw and Tracy Byrd.
Jones’ smooth, resonant voice — aged to perfection — is capable of carrying his listeners through a wide range of emotions. Upbeat novelty songs such as 1959’s “White Lightning” or his mid-‘60s hits “The Race Is On” and “Love Bug” can bring the audience to its feet dancing. They’re perfect for the Saturday night, blue collar crowd who need to let off a little steam before beginning the daily grind again come Monday morning. But tearjerkers like “Window Up Above,” “A Picture of Me (Without You),” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” can plummet those same listeners into the depths of darkness and despair.
Throughout his career, Jones has lived through many of the experiences of which he sings. His life has had more ups and downs than a roller coaster ride in an amusement park. In his autobiography, I Lived to Tell It All (with Tom Carter published in 1996), Jones candidly admits that many of his problems were exacerbated by years of alcohol and substance abuse. He’s been clean now for several years, and he’s never sounded better.
Jones is now embarking on a new phase in his illustrious career. This month he launches a new series of television specials on TNN. The first installment of The George Jones Show will debut Tuesday, February 17th, 10:00 p.m. Eastern. The program is a one-hour variety show that includes a healthy mix of hard-core country music and conversation with guests that include Patty Loveless, Vince Gill, Little Jimmy Dickens, Merle Haggard and many other country music hitmakers.
In a career that has spanned nearly five decades, George Jones is one of the few older, established country artists who still has a major label record deal. At age 66, Jones is revered as a well-respected statesman of country music. He is a direct link to country music’s Golden Era and its quickly vanishing past. He knew and rubbed shoulders with some of country music’s most influential performers including Roy Acuff, Lefty Frizzell, Bill Monroe and Hank Williams. Jones incorporated elements of their music into his own, but one fact remains clear — whatever inspiration he may have gleaned from those influences, he is definitely his own man, with his own distinct style. He’s not your ordinary country crooner.
But then, nothing about George Jones’ life is ordinary. Born September 12, 1931, in the “Big Thicket” of eastern Texas, George Glenn Jones weighed in at birth at a hefty 12 lbs. During his delivery, the attending doctor dropped the newborn infant, breaking one of his arms.
The Jones’ household was one filled with music. His father, George Washington Jones, worked in a nearby shipyard and played the harmonica and guitar. George’s mother, Clara, played piano each Sunday in the Pentecostal Church and tried to instill a sense of right and wrong in her family of eight children, of which George was the baby.
George took to music like a duck takes to water. On Saturday nights he’d fall asleep listening to the Grand Ole Opry with strict instructions for his folks, “But you wake me up if Bill Monroe or Roy Acuff come on,” recalls Jones. By age nine, George and his sister, Delores, were singing together. Says Jones, “I was raised on harmony.” Oftentimes, the pair would sing together in their Pentecostal church and at revival meetings. Other times, the pair would be wrestled from a sound sleep to sing for their father when he’d return home from one of his late-night drinking binges.
When George was eleven, he accompanied his parents on a weekend trip to nearby Beaumont. Recalls Jones in a 1996 interview with Ralph Emery, “I loved to go to the city. My dad told me he had a surprise for me. He took me to the Jefferson Music Company and bought me a Gene Autry guitar.” Before long, George was picking out the melodies to his favorite songs on the instrument and became so attached to it that he would sometimes fall asleep with the guitar in his arms. He would often skip school to roam the streets of Beaumont with his guitar slung over his shoulder singing for anyone who would listen. One such Sunday, George set up shop at a shoeshine stand singing Roy Acuff songs. Pretty soon, a crowd had gathered, and by day’s end, Jones had made about $24. “I’d never seen so much money in my life,” Jones later recalled. From that point on, music dominated George’s life. Formal education could not hold his interest, and after repeating the seventh grade, he dropped out of school.
He soon hooked up with a local musician, Dalton Henderson, and the duo began performing over KTXJ radio in nearby Jasper. From there he moved on to work with a popular regional duo, Eddie and Pearl, over station KRIC radio. With Eddie and Pearl he was working four nights a week on the popular dance hall circuit, weekends at a nearby amusement park and doing a daily radio show. It was while working at the radio station that he met one of his all-time musical heroes, Hank Williams. Recalls Jones of that event in his autobiography, “He came to KRIC when I was doing the afternoon show with Eddie and Pearl. He was booked to play the Blue Jean Club that night and wanted to promote his show. Hank accompanied himself on rhythm guitar and I was supposed to play electric lead behind the most popular country singer in the world.” He continues, “But I didn’t play a note. I was so intimidated at the sight of Hank Williams and the thought that I was in his presence that I was paralyzed with fear. I simply stood there and watched him arch his back and let that haunting voice coming from his skinny frame fill the room.”
In 1950 Jones joined the U.S. Marine Corps; however, music was not far from George’s mind. While stationed in San Jose, California, Jones was hired by local country music entrepreneur Cottonseed Clark. He pulled $25 for his Saturday night performances, which was good money back then. Jones was still in the service when Hank Williams died New Year’s Day 1953. Recalls Jones in his autobiography, “I cried when I heard about Hank. You could say he was the biggest part of my life at that time. That’s how personally I took him and his songs.” Ironically, Jones would be one of the few singers who could possibly begin to fill the void left by Williams. Later that same year, George was discharged from the service and returned to Texas to pick up where he’d left off.
Not long after he returned to Beaumont, Jones landed a recording deal with Pappy Daily and Jack Starnes, owners of Starday Records. His first single for the fledgling label was “No Money In This Deal,” which was recorded in Starnes’ living room. Not much happened with that single, but his recording of “Why Baby Why,” which he penned himself, was a hit in the fall of 1955. The song stayed on the Billboard country charts for nearly five months and managed to crack the Top Five. Jones was soon invited to appear on KWKH’s popular program, the Louisiana Hayride, originating from Shreveport. The following year he placed three more singles in the Top Ten and made the long trip from Texas to Nashville to appear on the Grand Ole Opry, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream. In both the Billboard and Country & Western Jamboree disc jockey polls, Jones was voted the Most Promising Male Artist for 1956.
In early 1957 Jones teamed up with singer Jeannette Hicks, the first of several duet partners he would have over the years, and enjoyed yet anther Top Ten single with “Yearning.” Starday Records merged with Mercury that same year, and Jones scored high marks on the charts with his debut Mercury release of “Don’t Stop the Music.” Meanwhile, George was travelling the black-top roads in a 1950 Packard with his name and phone number emblazoned on the side. Although he was garnering a lot of attention and his singles were making very respectable showings on the charts, Jones was still playing the “blood bucket” circuit of honky-tonks that dotted the rural countryside.
In an odd turn of events, Jones, at the behest of his manager, tried to tap into the late 1950s teen market. The wave of rock ‘n’ roll debilitated country record sales and brought on hard times for many country artists. Dead-set against the idea of recording anything that wasn’t hard-core country, Jones agreed to cut a few rockabilly sides only if they were released using a pseudonym. George was christened Thumper Jones (inspired by the rabbit in Disney’s Bambi ) and released “Rock It/How Come It?” in late 1957. The disc failed to hit the pop charts, and what few of those records are left these days are highly prized by collectors for according to Jones, “I used them for frisbees.” Additional forays – this time under the name Hank Smith – into the rockabilly field went nowhere, and Jones soon returned to his first love, country music, vowing never to cut anything but country music from there on out.
Firmly entrenched with Mercury Records, Jones had his biggest hit to date with his recording of a song written by J.P. Richardson, who gained prominence in the rock ‘n’ roll world as “The Big Bopper.” Cut at Owen Bradley’s legendary Quonset Hut featuring Pig Robbins on piano and a young Buddy Killen on bass, “White Lightning” is considered by many country writers to be one of Jones’ finest vocals ever, which says a great deal about his fiery performance. “White Lightning” spent a total of 22 weeks on the country charts with five of those weeks in the No. 1 spot. The song also marked Jones’ pop chart debut. On a sad note, however, Richardson died in an airplane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, that also claimed the lives of Buddy Holly and Richie Valens, just weeks before Jones’ record was released.
The 60s was an important decade in Jones’ career. He made a series of record label moves. Leaving Mercury in 1962, he signed on with United Artists, where he remained until 1964. There he enjoyed a healthy run with “Not What I Had in Mind,” “The Race Is On” and “She Thinks I Still Care.” Initially, Jones was reticent about recording “She Thinks I Still Care,” but songwriter-producer Jack Clement, who held the publishing, offered Jones and Daily half the publishing on the song, and Jones finally agreed to cut the number. Released in 1962, that song topped the Billboard country charts for six weeks. When the annual DJ convention convened in Nashville that fall, Jones picked up a carload of awards including Favorite Male Artist and Best Country Song of the Year.
During his tenure at United Artists, Jones was paired with newcomer Melba Montgomery. The Tennessee native and her brother came to Nashville as finalists in the Pet Milk Talent Contest. After taking first prize in the event, Melba was recruited by Roy Acuff to join his road troupe. She also worked with the comedy team of Lonzo and Oscar before Daily signed her in 1962 to United Artists. A gifted songwriter, Melba wrote the duo’s highest charting single, “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds.”
Jones’ financial position was stable enough that he was finally able to assemble his own road band, the Jones Boys. Among those who apprenticed under Jones were George Riddle, who has worked with Grand Ole Opry star Grandpa Jones, and Johnny Paycheck, then known professionally as Donnie Young, who fronted the Jones Boys from 1962-66. Both contributed greatly to the George Jones sound at that time.
In 1964, Jones again switched record labels. This time he signed on with Art Talmadge’s new Musicor label. His first single for Musicor, “Things Have Gone to Pieces,” managed to crack the Top Ten, as did the catchy novelty number “Love Bug,” which was released in ’65. Although Jones was charting consistently, he had relatively few No. 1 songs in his career, oftentimes with long stretches in between. “Walk Through This World With Me,” released in 1967, was his first single to top the charts since 1962. The remainder of the ‘60s were artistically rich years for Jones. He produced some of his finest recordings during this time; “If My Heart Had Windows,” “As Long As I Live,” “When The Grass Grows Over Me,” and “I’ll Share My World With You” are but a few examples of Jones at the height of his vocal powers.
After two broken marriages, Jones’ personal life took a turn for the better when he met — and fell in love with — one of country music’s new female singers. Tammy Wynette’s star was surely on the rise when she and Jones got together. She had a few hit singles under her belt including “I Don’t Want to Play House,” “Take Me To Your World” and “Stand By Your Man,” and she had many, many more in her future. Their 1969 marriage was, by country music standards, a royal wedding – the King of Heartache and the Queen of Tears. The combination of Jones and Wynette on a professional level resulted in one of the best country music road shows on the circuit. Their chemistry was undeniable. However, on a personal level, the two mixed like ammonia and bleach. Individually, each was fine, but when combined, they were a dangerous combination. To this day, depending on whose autobiography you read, there are conflicting accounts of some of the events of the couple’s six-year marriage. They did manage, though, to release some powerful duets such as “Take Me,” “We’re Gonna Hold On” and “Golden Ring” and one daughter, Tamala Georgette.
Jones switched labels in the early ‘70s — this time to Epic — where his then-wife Tammy Wynette was under contract. Producer Billy Sherrill began working with George, and his commercial stock soon rose. The Jones-Sherrill combination produced some outstanding recordings such as “A Picture of Me (Without You),” “Once You’ve Had the Best” and “The Grand Tour” that today remain some of Jones’ most requested songs. With a powerhouse label behind him, George Jones was a hot property in the late ‘70s.
He kicked off the new decade with the most important song of his career riding high on the charts. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is the kind of song any country singer would love to have a crack at recording. It is a well-crafted song with gut-wrenching lyrics that are timeless. Written by Curly Putnam and Bobby Braddock, the song was tailor-made for Jones, and his fans took the song to heart — was he singing about Tammy? The music industry also took notice of George’s performance, and he netted his first serious industry awards in some years. The CMA and ACM each voted George their Male Vocalist of the Year, and the song took home top honors from both organizations. Jones also picked up a Grammy for Best Country Male Vocal Performance.
Despite all this success, Jones was navigating some dark, stormy waters. Beginning with the failure of his marriage in 1975, he went on a major bender that lasted for several years and nearly killed him. He began missing shows and his performances were erratic in quality. Countless lawsuits were filed against Jones, and his reputation suffered. To compound the problem, some promoters took advantage of George’s physical and emotional state and often would promote shows with the clear knowledge that George had not even been booked. Jones was now considered risky business, and his personal appearance fee dropped considerably.
He did manage to make it into the studio though and laid down some pretty powerful tracks. Nearly all of Jones’ output through the mid-1980s made Billboard’s Top Ten including a pair of No. 1’s, “Still Doin’ Time” and the bluesy “I Always Get Lucky with You.” A Taste of Yesterday’s Wine, an album with Epic label mate Merle Haggard, also produced the No. 1 single, “Yesterday’s Wine.” The photo for the album cover, however, was revealing. It showed a drawn, gaunt Jones who did not look healthy.
Jones was failing fast. Attempts to dry out had been in vain. He’d go on the wagon only to fall off a short time later. Doctors had written him off as incurable and given him only a few months to live. He was approaching rock bottom in 1982 when he was pulled over by police on Interstate 65 just south of Nashville. Coincidentally, a television cameraman happened to pass by and captured the entire event on tape. It was not a pretty sight. Jones was trying to push the camera out of his way and even attempted a few kicks at the cameraman. Says Jones of that event, “(I’m) not sorry it happened ‘cause it probably saved my life.”
Not long after that event, he began to turn things around with the help of his fourth wife, Nancy Sepulvado, whom he married in 1983. The two had met sometime earlier through Jones’ manager at the time. Nancy saw in Jones a basically good person who was worth saving. The early years of the relationship were rocky, but Jones was committed to changing his destructive lifestyle. He gives Nancy all the credit for helping him to achieve his goal.
For the remainder of the 1980s, George continued to record for Epic and produced several sizeable hits including “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” “The Right Left Hand,” “Wine Colored Roses” and “One Woman Man.” He also set about the task of re-establishing his credibility among promoters. In 1991, he signed with MCA Records, for whom he records today and has produced some exceptional recordings — most notably 1992’s “I Don’t Need No Rocking Chair” and the highly impressive but little-played tracks from his album, The Bradley Barn Sessions, which boasts a slew of guest artists including Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Alan Jackson and the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards.
Jones’ place in country music history was confirmed with his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992. His bronze plaque now hangs just a few feet away from those honoring Hank, Lefty and Roy.
However, Jones is not content to rest on his laurels. He continues to work the road regularly, playing to sold-out crowds all across the country, despite the fact that he has trouble getting his new songs played on country radio.
Like many performers of his generation, Jones has essentially been cut from radio playlists. Jones has a slightly different perspective on this hot topic, though. He is less concerned about his own interests than those of a huge sector of country music fans. “At my age and where I’m at, it doesn’t matter much anymore. (But) it’s not me they’re pushing out and doing harm to. What they’re doing is harming the people that have stood by traditional country music for so many years.” His new TNN series will, no doubt, be a hit with those fans. Jones will also be featured in a two-part interview on Opry Backstage, set to air February 14 and February 21 at 8:30 Eastern, on TNN.