In attempting to pinpoint the genius of beloved country singer George Jones, Rich Kienzle has given himself a bear of an assignment. As he observes in the prologue to his new biography, “The Grand Tour,” Jones was “above all a master interpreter” rather than, primarily, a songwriter. He wasn’t a reflective artist like his contemporary Johnny Cash or an industry rebel like Willie Nelson or a social critic like Merle Haggard. He was an ineffably gifted vocalist whose huge success in the late ’50s through the early ’80s never translated to an interest in the world beyond the South, and who lost what should have been his prime years as a performer to his dependency on booze and cocaine. The nickname he earned and eventually embraced — “No-Show Jones” — alluded to his habit of failing to turn up for concerts, a violation of the most basic contract between performer and audience.
Kienzle draws a link between this chronic absenteeism and the abuse that the young Jones endured at the hands of his alcoholic father, who demanded that his boy sing on command. That’s as far as Kienzle’s attempts at psychoanalysis go and maybe as far as they could. His subject, after all, is a man who, for all his extraordinary power to convey sadness in song, loved nothing more than to putter around on his riding lawn mower. The oft-told yarn about how Jones rode his lawn mower eight miles to the nearest liquor store after his second wife, Shirley Corley, hid the car keys turns out to be “a true story that only added to the Jones legend.”
That’s a legend this book won’t burnish. Kienzle’s evident admiration for his subject does not keep him from reporting innumerable episodes that make Jones seem more coddled and petulant than Kanye West has ever been. For example, he had a habit of taunting via CB radio the handlers and
coke dealers who would come looking for him when he missed a show. Like West, Jones offered his fans titillating glimpses into his marriage, at least his 1969-1975 marriage to Tammy Wynette, a country star in her own right. The couple released a string of early-’70s ballads that seemed to comment directly on their marital struggles, such as “We’re Gonna Hold On” and “Once You’ve Had the Best.” But Kienzle attributes even this artistic exhibitionism to famed producer and songwriter Billy Sherrill’s shrewdness rather than any sense of agency on Jones’s part.
Late in the book, he quotes a newspaper review of Jones’s memoir, “I Lived to Tell It All,” which was released in 1996, three years before its author’s near-fatal drunken-driving accident: “Even diehard Jones fans are likely to tire of the umpteenth remembrance of another blown show date . . . another self-
pitying binge.” Kienzle ultimately can’t quite elude that sense of fatigue, either, even when he’s calling out the self-serving revisionism of Jones’s memory. He notes that the George Jones Museum in Nashville, which opened last year, sells George Jones White Lightning Moonshine, a brew “already earning praise for its quality.”
“The notion of a museum selling moonshine to celebrate the life of a man nearly destroyed by liquor startled many who knew of George’s demons,” he writes. Even in the hands of as sympathetic a reporter and critic as Kienzle, it’s a story the demons tend to dominate.
Chris Klimek is an editor at Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine.
By Rich Kienzle
Dey St. 279 pp. $27.99