Editor's Note: Country legend George Jones died two weeks ago, on April 26, 2013, in Nashville. Longtime area musicians John Howie Jr. and Tom Maxwell provided reflections on Jones. Below, Howie presents an overview of Jones' life from the perspective of a budding country fan whose own band went on to open for Jones. Maxwell, meanwhile, meditates on Jones' voice and why it had the impact it did; read that piece here.
Legend has it that the great Frank Sinatra once referred to George Jones as, “The second best male singer in America.” It’s one of my favorite quotes about the Possum, because whether or not Frank actually said it, the quote makes a very good point in its tone: that even a performer as lauded as Ol’ Blue Eyes—who had very few kind words for other singers and almost none for vocalists outside of his own genre—was able to recognize George’s talent. That speaks volumes about the country music icon, who passed away at age 81 on April 26.
Indeed, volumes have been spoken (and written) about Jones in the span of his nearly 60-year recording career, many of them focusing on his mythological exploits with everything from guns to riding lawnmowers. Still, most of them acknowledge his position as probably the greatest country singer who ever lived. That sort of defining title is awfully meaningful considering the range of people it places George above: Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, Ray Price, Buck Owens, Charley Pride.
Jones began his recording career by imitating his idols Roy Acuff and Hank Williams, making spirited, if at times generic, honky tonk records of the kind associated with the mid ’50s. A plea from larger-than-life producer Pappy Daily to “sing like George Jones” unleashed a soulful voice like no other; it propelled Jones to a career that would scale the heights of influence and idolatry, and sink to the depths of depression and addiction. As he moved from label to label, the hits came fast and hard, and despite his issues with the bottle and responsibility in general (Starday Records executive Gabe Tucker said, “Back then ... you never knew what that little bastard was liable to get into”), Jones became stood alongside his contemporaries Buck Owens and Johnny Cash.
The part about being the “Greatest country singer ever” would be the part of the equation that ironically brought George the most grief, the most difficulty, and, in fact, the most insecurity. At the height of his popularity in the 1970s, he became more famous for the scheduled performances he bailed on than the ones he actually attended (earning him the everlasting nickname, “No-Show Jones”). When he did show up, he was often drunk or surly, and occasionally performed in the voice of Hank Williams or Donald Duck. The truth, however, is that Jones had been making these career faux pas since at least the ’60s, an indication of just how uncomfortable and ill-equipped he was to deal with the trappings of the music business.
A shelved live album, recorded in 1965 and not released until 1987 as Live at Dancetown USA, gives us a crystal clear document of a typical Jones show, pre-sobriety: George is slurring throughout, forgetting lyrics, taking several breaks (one of which he refers to as a “liquor mission.” Get it?), and throws his band to the wolves for most of the show. Despite all of this, when he does actually sing, it’s clear that he was successful for a reason: The man simply could not be touched as a singer. Even in an environment Jones clearly views as hostile, his pitch is perfect, his phrasing immaculate, and his emotional delivery unparalleled.
By the time Jones bought out his contract with Musicor Records so he could record with then-love interest Tammy Wynette for Epic Records in 1971, he had several classics and hits under his belt—an extraordinary career that many performers could have and would have retired from. Amazingly, George’s true heyday was yet to come. The 1970s and early 1980s proved to be the best and worst of times for Jones, with his romantic and addictive trials being played out in legend and song for all the world to see.
Americans can’t resist a good love story, and the romance between Tammy Wynette and George Jones was the stuff of legend from the word go. By all accounts, George berated Tammy’s husband—yes, she was married when they met—like a honky-tonk knight in shining armor, and declared his love for Tammy at the couple’s dinner table. George and Tammy’s 1969 marriage spawned several romantic hits, and their individual careers swelled also, but George’s general insecurity (perhaps most horrifyingly manifested in his backstage-at-the-Opry grabbing of Porter Wagoner’s private parts and accusations of Porter sleeping with Tammy) was always around, just waiting to derail any contentment that might have otherwise been forthcoming. When cocaine was introduced to the mix, George became a danger to himself and others. He fired shotguns at friends, ate rarely, and hung out with generally unsavory types.
The hits, however, kept coming, despite George’s propensity for missing gigs, or showing up drunk to awards ceremonies. Producer Billy Sherrill made a conscious decision around this time to have George record in lower keys than he had in the 1960s. The results spawned some of the Possum’s greatest performances: “The Grand Tour,” “Loving You Could Never Be Better,” “A Picture of Me Without You,” and this writer’s personal favorite (and one of George’s last great co-writes), “These Days I Barely Get By.” Jones was counted out, time and time again. Listening back to his recordings of that era, you might guess it from the subject matter, but you’d never guess it from the quality of singing.
DUIs, more missed shows, performances rendered in the voice of Donald Duck; none of these could stop Jones from releasing his career-defining (at age 49!) classic, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Not even George’s reticence (“It took us a year to record it,” said Sherrill) or his outright defiance (“Nobody’ll buy that morbid son of a bitch,” said Jones) could stop the song from propelling George to a virtual sweep of the 1980 CMA’s, at which a thoroughly plowed Jones thanked the first people he saw from the podium: legendary country music married couple Kitty Wells and Johnny Wright.
Around this time, George was everywhere. Or, at least, that’s how it seemed in my house. He was always on the radio in my dad’s car (I thought George was singing “They placed a ring upon his dog.”), always in the magazines, and frequently on our television set. I have a very clear memory of my dad and I watching George as portrayed by actor Tim McEntire in the made-for-TV Wynette biopic Stand By Your Man. One scene—a particularly brutal one—found George thrashing around, trashing a room, clearly intoxicated. That caused my father to utter the immortal words, “He’s a drunk, just a godawful drunk, I’ll give ‘em that. But the man could sing the words out of a Fu Manchu book and make you cry.”
My dad’s reaction—defensive of Jones, despite all of the evidence of his shortcomings—was a microcosm of the general public’s feelings about George, and one of the major keys to his success. In spite of his very public screw-ups, the fans adored him, even as they shelled out hard earned cash for shows they knew damn well he might skip out on. Because when he sang “The Grand Tour,” with its pleading “Lord knows, we had a good thing going here” lyric, it sounded like he had lived every word. Not one second of the vocal track from that song or any of the other classics from that period sounds anything less than purely heartfelt and authentic. The fact that George seemed like anybody else who just couldn’t quite get their act together only added to the intensity of the experience.
Meeting Nancy Sepulveda, who would become the fourth Mrs. Jones in 1983, changed things considerably for Jones. With the help of the proverbial good woman, the Possum finally got his act together, settled down, sobered up, and enjoyed a stable life and career, often poking fun at his former transgressions. He continued to have hits—among them John Howie Sr. faves like “Wine Colored Roses” and “The Right Left Hand. Now slightly grittier with age, his voice still resonated with pain and honesty. Jones even completed his entertaining autobiography, appropriately titled I Lived To Tell It All. But the past, filled with cocaine binges, captured-on-film DUIs, and missed shows, was behind him.
Or was it? In 1999, George crashed his Lexus into a bridge, and supposedly booze was involved. Once again, despite tragedy, George’s work did not suffer. Recorded around the time of the crash, Cold Hard Truth, which included the single “Choices,” was the last great album Jones released. I saw George twice on that tour, and his voice was as good as ever, his band fantastic, the fans rabid. He had complained about his throat, and the medication he was on post-accident, but he sounded like gold.
After witnessing a Jones performance on television around 2007, I vowed to never again attend one of his concerts. I was glad that he was still out there, but his voice had deteriorated considerably. I was a little shocked by his performance. I still loved him, but I couldn’t bring myself to hear the Greatest Country Singer Ever when he was no longer living up to the title. My girlfriend, who had never seen Jones, talked me into accompanying her to his N.C. State Fair performance in 2011, where all of my fears were well-founded. You could still hear the Jones magic in the phrasing, but the power and resonance were gone, replaced by something far weaker. I left the show recalling the first time I’d seen George, in 1993 in Gaffney, S.C., and how at that time his voice had seemed to truly come from the heavens, filling the entire outdoor park. That show had been cathartic. Little did I know that I would, in fact, see George one last time, under what—for me—would be the most ideal of circumstances.
When my band got the call to open for George at the Durham Performing Arts Center, we were beyond ecstatic. The opportunity of a lifetime had been offered to us, and we had every intention of making the most of it. Despite how I’d felt about the last Jones show I’d been to, he was still my favorite singer, and I knew he always would be. When I arrived at the venue on the fateful day, the first thing I was told was that George was in no mood or shape for any kind of meet-and-greet. I was disappointed, but I understood. His wife, Nancy, and most of his band were incredibly nice to us before, during and after the show. Nancy correctly guessed the gender of our steel player Nathan Golub’s soon-to-be-born son, and she and George’s own steel player watched our entire set and were very complimentary. Hell, the bass player even gave me a free T-shirt.
After the Rosewood Bluff’s portion of the show, while our bassist manned our merch table, George’s band came out to warm up the crowd. My buddy Dan Schram and I stood in absolute awe mere feet away from George as he sat preparing for the show. We were just about the only people who could see him, but he still sat there smiling, tapping his foot, waiting for his entrance. I remember thinking that, despite his age and recent illness, he really looked like that was the only place in the world he wanted to be at that moment.
Lord knows, I felt exactly the same.