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The Kennedy Center Honors: George Jones

George Jones, "The Greatest Living Country Singer," receives the Kennedy Center Honors Sunday night. He has 14 No. 1 country singles, is a two-time Country Music Association male vocalist of the year and a member of the Country Music Hall of fame.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 7, 2008; Page M14

FRANKLIN, Tenn.

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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.


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