Goodbye George Jones: A Country Legend Passes Away
With a quicksilver warble that captured the devastation of bad love George Jones defined country music like no other singer in the 20th century. Jones' voice was instantly identifiable, a fluid and expressive thing that famously prompted Frank Sinatra to call him "the second best singer in America." Jones lived as hard as the songs he sang, a dedicated drinker and tempestuous partner who was married four times, finally finding redemption and lasting love in his final decades. The Saratoga native - who cut his teeth in Beaumont and cut his earliest singles in Houston - died Friday. He was 81. He had been hospitalized since April 18 recently with an illness.
For decades, Jones' history was country music's history. He was a honky-tonk pioneer with hits such as "Why Baby Why" and "White Lightning," but his wild and pugnacious streak didn't render him too rigid to change with the times. When country moved from hard-driving music driven by steel guitar and fiddle based music to lush, string-laden country politan, Jones evolved with it, scoring hits after his early contemporaries had faded from relevance. In 1980, 25 years after his first charting hit, he released perhaps his most enduring song: "He Stopped Loving Her Today."
Only when the last remnants of old-style country were squeezed out of Nashville, did Jones find himself a man without a genre. Even then, he bristled at the notion that he was rocking chair bound, and continued to make strong hard country recordings.
Jones achieved almost instant myth, evident in his nicknames: "No Show" Jones, for the missed performances when he was on a drunk, and "the Possum," from a disc jockey who was referring to Jones' close-set eyes and upturned nose.
He was part of a legendary spousal with Tammy Wynette; they were storied duet partners, able to convey the sweetness and bitterness of love through the intermingling of their voices. He also seemed to have more lives than a cat, surviving alcoholism, drug addiction, divorce, relapses, car crashes, squandered fortunes and all the requisite bumps of a fabled ride through fame.
But Jones' legacy, colorful as the tangents were, was about his singing. His golden, honeyed voice was a perfect match for his singing style: bending and slurring notes, often to melancholy effect. He never had a pop hit, but he placed more than 100 singles on the country charts, many of which are radio and jukebox staples to this day.
"There ain't much I can say about Saratoga," he said in 2001. "It's where I was born and I had all my kinfolks in that neck of the woods. It was about 40, 50 miles into what we called 'the big city' back then: Beaumont."
He grew up in Beaumont, where his parents embodied the cycles of sin and redemption that would inform all of his public life. From his mother, he developed a love of old gospel music. From his alcoholic father, he obtained his first guitar, which he'd use to busk for change in Beaumont. He learned his first two chords from a Sunday school teacher, "and the rest by ear," and he was off.
Jones married for the first time at 19, though it didn't last a year. After a short stint in the Marines, he turned to music full-time. "Hank Williams came out and Lefty Frizzell, oh my goodness it blew my mind wide open," he told the Chronicle of his earliest influences. "I have a lot of phrasing and do a lot of things like Hank and Lefty because I loved the way they sang. Lefty would make five syllables out of one. I got that part from him. And I got some from Hank and Roy Acuff. But just by using my own voice I came up with my own style, I guess."
Houston music legend Pappy Daily signed Jones to his Starday label, which released a handful of unsuccessful singles starting in 1954. Jones had more luck a year later with "Why Baby Why," his first charting single.
Even then, Jones' voice was a marvel. He'd guide it through dips and slurs, high and low. It was the consummate country music instrument. It could convey twinkle-eyed mischief or bleary-eyed misery, it could put across a danceable honky-tonk song or a shot glass-inspired ballad
Jones' early success helped him land a spot on the Louisiana Hayride, where he shared a stage with Elvis Presley. Additional hit songs earned him a spot on the Grand Ole Opry in 1956.
A year later, Starday aligned itself with Mercury Records, and Jones' career took off, especially with the 1958 release of "White Lightning," an uptempo country chart-topper about moonshining.
The rise of rock 'n' roll nearly killed the big band crooners in the '60s, but it did little to curb Jones' success. He had hits with Melba Montgomery in the early '60s, and continued making popular solo singles in the latter part of the decade including one of his most enduring songs "The Race Is On."
Jones recorded hundreds of songs during that time. Some have become country classics, many were forgettable.
He lived like he recorded: Fast and out of control. By the late-'60s Jones developed a reputation for missing shows. His second marriage ended. He then relocated to Nashville where he met, fell in love with, and married singer Tammy Wynette in 1969.
Jones and Wynette quickly became country music's most celebrated, and gossiped about, couple.
Wynette helped sweep away the final residue from Jones' early, honky-tonk sound, when she introduced him to her producer, Billy Sherrill, an architect of a sweeping, string-filled permutation of country that was tagged countrypolitan.
The intersection of Jones, Wynette and Sherrill was a successful one, producing a string of hits such as "A Good Year for the Roses."
Listeners looked to the songs for a status report of Jones and Wynette's marriage. While artists often deflect such ties, the turmoil captured in their duets actually did reflect what was going in their lives. Jones was unraveling due to alcohol and cocaine abuse.
One of the most famous pieces of Jones lore is the time Wynette took away his car keys to prevent a liquor store run. Jones, already soused, took his riding lawnmower instead. He told the Chronicle it wasn't the first time he'd done so.
The couple divorced in 1973, though that didn't mark the end of their work together, evidenced by "Golden Ring," an account of new love, a wedding and a divorce.
The late '70s were a troubled time for Jones. He began to miss performances and his songs weren't hitting the charts as frequently. He bounced back, creatively at least, in 1981 with a string of hit singles including "He Stopped Loving Her Today," one of country music's best and saddest songs. In a music genre known for weepers, it was the ultimate weeper, its protagonist is only freed from a tortured love by his own death.
Jones' revived career did nothing to stabilize his life. He hit rock bottom in 1983 when he drunkenly led police on a chase through Nashville. The chase and his apprehension - photos show him wild-eyed like a cornered animal - was captured on TV.
"Liquor is a bad thing," he said. "It's not even good to drink it socially. Sooner or later, you're gonna drink too many and make a butt out of yourself or lose a friend or something. It's just a shame that it took me so damn long to understand that I wasn't getting a damn thing by it. All I was doing is making things worse every day. You almost got to learn these things yourself. Experience is the best teacher in the world."
Having tried marriage and filed three times, Jones married Nancy Sepulvada in 1983, prompting him to clean up; she remained his companion until the end, helping him work through a relapse some 16 years later.
Jones still created the occasional hit in the late-'80s, but a younger generation of fans wanted a younger generation of artists.
By the '90s, the well was dry, though it didn't mean Jones quit making quality recordings. Particularly inspired was "The Bradley Barn Sessions." Released in 1994, the set paired Jones with younger artists such as Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt and Vince Gill as they ran through classics from his catalog. Testament to Jones' reach was a guest appearance by Keith Richards, who played guitar and sang on "Say It's Not You." Particularly poignant was a revived "Golden Ring" reunion with Wynette. It would lead to another duets album, "One," in 1995, three years before Wynette's death.
Wynette's passing would likely have prompted a confessional time for Jones had he not already passed through one. "I Lived to Tell It All," his best-selling 1996 biography, was teeming with tales of unruly behavior, including his ill-advised and very intoxicated attempt to ventilate a sweltering tour bus by shooting holes in the floorboards.
"I don't have any regrets," he told the Chronicle in 2001. "I learned my lessons the hard way. I caused every bit of my problems. I am sorry for a lot of things, that I hurt people. But I have no regrets because they're part of learning."
As country moved further toward pop, Jones continued to make music the only way he knew. He recorded some mediocre and bad songs and more than a few novelties, but to his credit, his lesser songs were still country to the core. "To me, it's pop music and it ought to be classified that way," he said of contemporary country. "Not as country.
"I couldn't sing any other way but traditional. I've stretched at times and on certain songs about as far as I'd want to stretch to satisfy the people. But I've got a certain amount of fans that I don't want to jeopardize. I've had them all through my career."
Here's a little reading music, some classic George Jones....
And to re-cap on his self described drinking problem.....