George might show up flyin' high If George shows up at all But he can be unconsciously The greatest of them all From the Beatles and me in Nashville To the 'billies and the Rolling Stones If we could all sing like we wanted to We'd all sing like George Jones. -- "It's Allright," by Waylon Jennings

In the Saturday hour between show's end and midnight, George Jones pays back his fans with the one thing they can take away besides a memory -- his signature on torn slips of paper, in treasured autograph books and on some of the 150 albums he's released over 25 years. The cluster of outstretched hands around the door of his $75,000 customized touring bus represents the most hard-core fans out of 3,300 who have come to Fairfax High School to see Jones have his way with a song the way Don Juan had his with women.

And Jones hasn't disappointed them with his tortured, clenched-mouthed singing about drinking and loving, the spaces in between and the silences around. No country singer has ever lived a confused life so publicly, but country music fans have forgiven Jones' trespasses as consistently as they've appreciated his heartfelt hits and his hard-won and hard-lost missus -- Tammy Wynette. They've stood by their man because even when he couldn't hold his liquor, even when some fans would shout from the audience, "Where's George?", even when he tried to hide from himself as the songs became inseparable from the life, even as he tottered between being the Crown Prince and the Clown Prince of County, George Jones was -- the fans'll tell you he still is -- the best damn singer in country music.

Midnight finds George Jones still buzzing from the good crowd. In the subdued but unreconstructed Gulf Coast twang that will forever mirror his growing up in Texas, Jones says, "You may not sound any better, but you work harder." Dressed in less menacing black than his pal Johnny Cash, Jones sits back on the small bed of his gently rumbling bus, the tension of performance slowly slipping away.

For a man whose deeds have been so spectacular, Jones is surprisingly slight. A photograph taken just after he got out of the Marines in the early '50s, when it looked like he would be a house painter, not a home wrecker, shows a healthy, unmarked George Jones.

Tracks of tears are now gulches in his face. He looks lived-in, his mortgage fully paid in the past. Eighteen months ago, George Jones was nearly dead, victim to his own uncontrollable drinking and violence. He dropped to 105 pounds, fled from recording and concert dates and seemed to be following in the tradition of his one-time idol, Hank Williams, until his friends -- led by Cash and Jones' ex-wife Wynette -- goaded him into a detoxification program. Jones emerged, less cured than comforted, and his comeback has been marked by Grammy and country music awards and perhaps the greatest success of his quarter-century in country music. "I don't think we're ever at the top of the mountain," Jones says. "We got to remember we're not up there too high that we can't fall."

The tempestuous marriage between Jones and Tammy Wynette only served to turn the lights on a career rooted in conflicts. To get everything he wanted, it often seemed that Jones had to give up everything he had; it was a less than even trade-off that left him looking for the good memories at the bottom of too many glasses and bottles.Just as he and Wynette used to reenact their wedding ceremony at concerts, their separation and divorce was often worked out in song, so that any country music fan would have testified as an expert witness in the proceedings. Jones, who has never made excuses for anything he's done, condensed the whole situation in the classic song, "If Drinking Don't Kill Me (Her Memory Will)," and everybody watched him squirm under the three-minute fishbowl of country hits.

"I had a song on the last album that scared me to death," Jones whispers. "I wouldn't release it as a single, though everybody wanted me to. It was called "I've Aged 20 Years in 5." That's when I lost all the weight and looked so bad on the Johnny Cash special, but I thought it was carrying the smypathy thing too far."

Jones seems unembarrassed about the lack of privacy in his life. "I don't mind the truth," Jones says. "Our fans, our people, if they know the truth, they understand you that much better. They'll either hate or feel sorry for you . . . or love you more. They understand."

The singer didn't watch the recent telecast based on Wynette's autobiography, "Stand By Your Man." He says he hasn't read the book, either, though he is portrayed in both with unflattering detail. "I heard a lot about it," Jones laughs. "I don't mind anything in the world that's true. Country music fans will forgive you 'cause they love you, they love what they're experiencing, as long as you aren't a phony, as long as you can walk out on that stage and say I am what I am."

What he is, Jones admits, is part of an unusual extended family. He is managed by Paul Richey, whose brother George happens to be Wynette's new husband, or as Jones says, "my new husband-in-law." They form the core of people (including Waylon Jennings and Tom T. Hall) who bailed him out of his financial maelstrom after the detox 18 months ago, who leg him back into the studio and his current spate of hits. They even reunited Jones and Wynette, who hadn't sung together for two years; the resulting "Two Story House" rose to No. 2 and the singers are together again -- at least on stage. "We have our little ups and downs," Jones says of the unusual relationship, "but we get along fine. I'm the biggest problem," he adds with an impish laugh.

Another part of the rehabilitation was an album of duets with some of his famous fans, including Willie Nelson, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and new-wave rocker Elvis Costello, who wrote "stranger in the House" for Jones. (Costello, one the more reclusive figures in contemporary music, got off his sickbed several weeks ago to play with Jones on a Home Box Office special). "My Very Special Guests," the duet album, was done "at a time when I had 'the problem' and I was doing some of the worst singing I ever done in my life," Jones sighs. "But these friends didn't charge a nickel royalty on anything to help. That's the reason I feel so bad about my performance. I'll never forget what they done. It was the greatest thing anybody could ever do for anybody."

People, Jones says, are watching to see if -- or when -- he slips again. "They know I'm going to have a drink," Jones muses. "I try to control it a lot better than I used to . . . and I know I do. I think [the fans] love it because they know I'm not hiding it . . . I walk out on stage feeling good, but I ain't staggering out, falling all over the place . . . and they feel a part of me. You can't hide it, I'm going to have a drink. Hell, we're human. Just because I sing and have a hit record don't make me any different than Miss Griffin sitting there in the first row or Mr. Parker in the fifth row."

What connects them all is a love for country music, which Jones defines as "heart and soul, down to earth. Anybody in the world can understand it . . . if they want to listen. People didn't used to want to listen, it was too sad, it told the truth of what was in their heart, what hurt them. They didn't want that a couple of years ago, but they had to face these things. Life is sad and you got to face the good with the bad. That's something I didn't do for a long time. I thought it was all supposed to be good, have fun, partying. I couldn't cope with the next day when something bad happened, couldn't cope with it at all, went berzerk, crazy, wanted to get drunk, pass out, get out, miss the job, miss my dates."

And through it all, George Jones has managed to maintain the nearly primitive hard-core country tradition that increasingly gave in to pop commercialization. He thinks he's had "the success I've had today because I didn't have to change. I was just . . . country. And I've always been country and I always will be country . . . You got to love what you're doing, not the money or wives or popularity. I don't care what you're gonna do -- if you're a pipe-fitter, welder, electrician -- if you do your job right, you're going to have a damn good job. Somebody's going to want you back again tomorrow.