The Kennedy Center Honors: George Jones

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 7, 2008


In his hell-raising days, back when George Jones received at least as much notice for his self-destructive tendencies as for his profound voice, this moment almost certainly would have foreshadowed trouble: The greatest of all country music emoters is entertaining a visitor in his den when he reaches into a pocket and removes a pillbox filled with white tablets.

Jones, who battled his restless impulses and addictive demons for decades, carefully opens the tiny plastic case, then holds it up.

"Gum?" he offers. He pops two pieces into his mouth, feeding his benign new habit.

"I chew too much of it, that Eclipse," Jones says in a high rasp that's been dipped in an East Texas twang. "I usually mix two of them together: one spearmint, the other winterfrost. The last two years, I just went nuts with it. I don't know why it is. Maybe it's a replacement vice."

He laughs. Funny thing, sobriety.

Jones says he's clean now, at the age of 77. Water has become his drink of choice, usually from bottles bearing his own likeness. Doesn't even smoke anymore.

Yes, the silver-haired singer with the aching, golden tone had a cigarette habit for 50 years. Didn't seem to hurt him, though: Frank Sinatra once called this baroque expressionist "the second-best singer in America," and meant it as high praise. Today, Garth Brooks says: "George Jones is simply the greatest voice to ever sing country music."

Anyway, Jones was scared straight nearly a decade ago, on March 6, 1999, when he crashed his SUV into a bridge abutment near his suburban Nashville home. "I wasn't dead drunk, but I was feeling good," he says of that day, when he took his eye off the road while fiddling with the stereo.

"I didn't come to for a week. That finally woke me up; I quit everything and found peace." Not bad, given that a doctor had previously told him he was an incurable alcoholic, to say nothing of his affinity for cocaine and other drugs.

It's difficult to say which is more remarkable: that Jones finally got himself straightened up, or that he lived long enough to do so. For he's spent a lifetime cheating death.

He's been stabbed by a repo man, was hospitalized with pneumonia and had his head pounded against a concrete floor by fellow Country Music Hall of Famer Faron Young during a backstage fight. (A belligerent drunk, Jones got in a lot of fights over the years, often with his own friends. He also shot up his own tour bus. While his band mates were in it.)

He's survived multiple tour-bus crashes -- "real, real bad ones," he says -- though he just managed to miss the very worst of them. "One evening I decided to fly home, just me and the drummer. The bus crashed and the whole back part caved in, right where I slept."

In 1979, when the singer's weight dropped from 150 pounds to less than 100, a doctor told Jones -- who'd weighed 12 pounds at birth -- to quit the drinking and the drugs or die. He did neither, and, in fact, the following year managed to cut the exquisitely heartbreaking "He Stopped Loving Her Today," the greatest of all sad songs in a genre full of them.

In 1994, Jones was taken to the hospital with shortness of breath; shortly thereafter, on the morning of his 63rd birthday, he had triple-bypass surgery. In the 1999 SUV accident, he suffered a punctured lung, a lacerated liver and internal bleeding.

His leather jacket, shredded in the wreck, is now stored in a memorabilia closet on the lower level of his enormous house, which sits on a leafy 78-acre spread. (It's the one with musical notes on the entry gates and a large stone marker announcing it as "The Home of George and Nancy Jones," the singer's fourth wife.)

Alcohol almost felled Jones, who once scored a Top 10 country hit with a single titled "If Drinking Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)." Yet it saved his life once, as well: "I did a show in Winchester, Virginia, and had a reservation leading out of there to Elmira, New York. But I continued on with my drinking and missed that flight and the show. Well, that plane went down and killed almost 30 people."

Not for nothing is his 1996 autobiography titled "I Lived to Tell It All."

"I'll tell you what, old George is a tough one," says Mel Tillis, another Country Music Hall of Famer, who has been friends with Jones since 1956. "I'm surprised he's still alive, but I'm so proud that he is. He went through a lot, but he brought himself out of it and straightened up his life."

Says Buddy Cannon, who has produced several albums for Jones: "There's not many people still alive that have abused their bodies as harshly as George has. With all the insanity he went through, you have to be surprised and amazed that it didn't kill him. It's a miracle."

And now, the ultimate country music survivor and incomparable singer is on his way to Washington to receive the Kennedy Center Honors.

"I know everybody can't believe that I'm still here," Jones says. "People in Nashville will tell me, 'George, you still alive?!' I've had 15, maybe 20 lives, I reckon. The Good Lord kept me around for some reason. But I don't know what it is."

He shrugs, then quietly chews his gum.

* * *

George Glenn Jones is the embodiment of country music, his biography playing like a song sung blue.

He came up hard and rural, born during the Great Depression in a log cabin near an East Texas oilfield. His father was a laborer and an alcoholic. His mother sang and played piano in church. He had six siblings (a seventh died before he was born), not much of an education and not much opportunity.

Music was his escape, and Jones became obsessed with the Grand Ole Opry's radio broadcasts. By age 11, he was performing in public himself, once earning "$24 and some-odd cents" by playing a Gene Autry guitar at a shoeshine stand in Beaumont, Tex., where his family was living in a housing project.

"I'd never seen so much money in my life," he says. "Most I'd seen, my mother gave me a quarter. But usually I'd get a nickel. Lord, I never dreamed of anybody giving money for something like that. I just loved music so much."

As a teenager, he played guitar for a husband-and-wife duo and got to meet his idol, Hank Williams, at a radio station. "Oh my God, I worshiped him," Jones says. "But he sat down and talked to us and acted like nothing in the world had changed. He was just an Alabama boy who lucked up. That's as far as it went in his mind. That's the way I've always felt about what I've done, too."

Jones got married as a teenager, fathered a child, then got divorced after one year, his wife writing in her petition that he was a violent alcoholic.

It would be the first of three failed marriages for Jones, none more famously tumultuous than the one to his sometime duet partner Tammy Wynette, from 1969 to 1975. (A happy coda to Jones's sad love song: For the past 25 years, he's been married to his manager and "savior," the former Nancy Sepulveda. "She says she could see the good in me; there wasn't no doubt she saw the bad," the singer says. "I'll never know why, but she cared that much for me that she stayed with me through a lot of rough times. Lord, I landed me a good woman!" Her presence is noted in a joke sign posted at the front door: "Forget the dog. Beware of wife.")

After his first marriage disintegrated, Jones joined the Marine Corps, then moved to Houston, where he recorded his first hit: "Why, Baby, Why," which reached No. 4 in 1955.

He became a fixture on the country charts over the next four decades, as the hits kept coming and coming, from "She Thinks I Still Care," "Walk Through This World With Me" and "A Picture of Me Without You" to "The Grand Tour," "Bartender's Blues" and "We're Gonna Hold On," one of his many duets with Wynette. In all, as a solo singer or vocal collaborator, Jones charted more than 150 singles, from hard honky-tonk sides to big symphonic ballads.

Yet, always, he struggled offstage. Jones drank too much, fell into drugs, couldn't shake the overwhelming feeling of loneliness, went broke, broke up his marriages and was in and out of legal trouble, often related to all those concerts that he'd missed.

"I had some real hard times," he says. "I'm glad I finally opened my eyes and got to see a good part of life."

Jones isn't big on personal reflection, saying: "I try not to look back too much." But every now and again, he finds himself consumed by regret.

"You think about the things you done, the way you treated people," he says. "I'm troubled with those thoughts quite often. You just wished you hadn't hurt people like you'll do when you're messed up. It was pretty bad.

"I'll tell you what bothers me more than anything: All the dates I missed, when I got the title 'No-Show Jones.' In my mind, I can envision these people, the old grandma and her daughter, they saved their money for probably a couple of months, gave up things, walked down the country roads or whatever to go to the show, and I'm not there. I can just see these people in my mind. I let 'em down. So many of them. That bothers me worst of all."

But you can laugh about some of it, right?

About the more ridiculous stories from that period, like the one about you flushing a bunch of money down the toilet?

"See, a lot of stuff got started that ain't true, but people believed it, being the way I was. I been crazy, but I ain't been crazy enough to flush $3,000 down the commode!"

He laughs.

"Now, the lawn mower -- I really did do that! Oh, Lord. I came home one time after the tour was over, and they'd hid all my vehicles. I was suffering like hell. I was looking for a bootlegger, anything. I needed a drink. There was this little 10-horsepower Cub Cadet sitting right outside my bedroom. I said, 'They had to take the keys to that lawn mower. Ain't no way.' But about noon, I was really suffering, so I went out and, sure enough, the damn key was in there and started right up. Wooooooooh! That little thing wouldn't do much; it took me a long time to get to where I needed to go, maybe two hours. But I was that crazy."

He's howling now, the Possum, so nicknamed decades ago by a disc jockey who thought the singer's upturned nose and close-set eyes resembled the animal's.

"Thank God I'm still alive and can laugh about it," he says. "But boy, that was just pitiful."

* * *

Jones calls his life "an open book." Doesn't mean it's always the greatest read, though.

Take the chapter on Jones's singing, which tends to make people weak in the knees.

Others are always saying the darnedest things about him -- about his unequaled ability to immerse himself in a vocal, about his plaintive expressiveness and distinctive, economical phrasing. They talk about his rounded consonants and stunning vocal swoops and cries, about the remarkable purity and pliancy of his lachrymose voice.

"There's a mournful tear in it," says country star Vince Gill, who has recorded with Jones. "His voice has angst; it reeks of emotion and soul. It's just something inherent. But what sets him apart is his ability to use that great voice: the subtleties of his phrasing, the way he takes a note with great brevity. He phrases in a way that most singers couldn't really comprehend."

"If your spirit could jump out and have its own voice and sing a country song to you, it'd sound like George Jones," says Jamey Johnson, a young country traditionalist.

"George's voice is equal parts pain and home," says another nascent Nashville star, Eric Church.

James Taylor, who wrote "Bartender's Blues," has said that Jones sounds like a steel guitar when he sings, given "the way he blends notes, the way he comes up to them and comes off them, the way he crescendos and decrescendos." Noting Jones's tight, controlled dynamics, Taylor added that "it's like carving with the voice."

But Jones himself can't quite explain his own style.

Ask about his success as a vocalist and interpreter of songs, about all the acclaim he earned after he stopped trying to sound like Roy Acuff, and he raises his eyebrows.

"I've heard a lot of people say different things, nice things, about me, and of course it's an honor," he says. "But I've tried to analyze it in my mind, and I can't quite grab ahold of what they really mean. People will ask me how I sing like that. But you know, I never was worth a darn talking. Well, I can talk, but don't make a hell of a lot of sense. I can't explain things. I really think it's just a feeling that's born in you. I just think you're blessed with a gift. 'Course, if it wasn't for the songwriter, I don't care how good you sing, you wouldn't have no hits. It's the song that makes the singer."

Put a mediocre singer on a great song, though, and it's not the same.

"He Stopped Loving Her Today" is an undeniable masterpiece. But not if, say, a Washington journalist sings it.

"Well, it might have been," Jones says. He is not laughing. "I just believe the right song has to be there. You just have to feel it. Now, whoever performs it might do it different. But it's still one of the most beautiful songs there ever was."

As for being a masterful singer, Jones says: "Only if it's a very big accident." (For what it's worth, the Country Music Hall of Fame notes that Jones "at times seems to be genuinely bewildered by the immensity of his own talent and the acclaim it has brought him.")

Self-reflection isn't his specialty, then.

And that might well explain the genius of George Jones.

"Not being able to articulate it, I suspect that's what made George so good," says steel guitar master Lloyd Green, who has performed on 10,000 sessions with some of the top singers in the business since the 1950s, Jones among them. "It's a totally intuitive emotional process for him. It's certainly not an intellectual process. He didn't make it a cerebral enterprise; he just sang from the heart."

"I think the whole egg in a nutshell," Jones says, trying one last time to explain his enormous appeal, "is that there's never been anything phony about me. What you see is what you get."

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