"If we all could sound like we wanted to, we’d all sound like George Jones." -- Waylon Jennings
Taking a look at George Jones’s life, it is a wonder that he lived to be 81 years old. His name became synonymous with hard living self-destruction and he seemed to regard that comparison as a compliment, as if ultimately his greatest accomplishment wouldn’t be measured by hits on music charts. It would simply be surviving being George Jones.
His life was a constant rollercoaster ride that reached dizzying peaks only to nosedive to the depths. He lived in mansions and asked his friends for money when he was broke. While some people battle with alcoholism, Jones waged a never-ending war with it. He married four times, was committed to an Alabama psychiatric hospital for a period, and eventually acquired the nickname "No-Show Jones" because of the number of concert engagements that he missed. His combative nature was caught on a police video and broadcast all over the world after he was stopped for DUI.
His fans forgave him everything because he had the kind of voice that could wring tears out of a slab of granite.
He was born in Saratoga, Texas, on Sept. 12, 1931, one of seven children in a Baptist family that loved singing. His parents bought a radio when George was seven and he got his first guitar when he was nine. By age 16, he had moved to Jasper, Texas, and was appearing on a local radio station. He was married at 19 and divorced for the first time before he was 21.
Jones enlisted in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, but never got closer to the front than California. The alcoholism that would plague his adult life had set in with a vengeance during his second marriage. After his wife hid the keys to the couple’s car, Jones climbed aboard a riding lawnmower to get to the nearest liquor store.
He would later say that he never understood his behavior, but he never shied away from responsibility for it either.
He married Tammy Wynette in 1969, rescuing her from an abusive marriage and plunging her into another one. Jones acknowledged that their six-year union was a stormy one, but the storm abated when the two of them sang together. They had three No. 1 hits together.
The old demons were always waiting in the wings and Tammy finally had to abandon the resolution preached in her signature song, "Stand By Your Man," once again. Years later, she confessed in a television interview that she simply didn’t know how to deal with Jones’s drinking, but the dissolution of the marriage took its toll on her.
The divorce would inspire one of her most affecting and personal songs, "Till I Can Make It On My Own."
In spite of it all -- and perhaps because of a lot of it -- George Jones remained one of the most widely admired and imitated singers in the history of the most inherently American of all musical genres. He was to country what Frank Sinatra was to contemporary songs. There was Jones and then there was everyone else.
His phrasing was unique and he went places with a song that its writer probably never dreamed of. Jones could effortlessly modulate a single note, making it swoop up like an eagle taking flight and impart a meaning to the lyric that no one had even noticed before. He put an indelible stamp on everything he sang, from paeans to elbow bending like "If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)" and "White Lightning" to inspiring gospel duets with Vestal Goodman. Anne Murray could croon "He Thinks I Still Care" as if the song was meant as a honey-flavored reminiscence. No amount of sweetness could disguise the bitter regret that permeates Jones’s version.
He was a country singer of the old school and Jones, probably more vocally than any other major artist, recognized that times had changed. He spoke frequently about how much he missed what he called "real" country with a thinly disguised contempt for what passes for it today. His last CD with his "favorite ex-wife" was released in 1995. "One" was among their best collaboration albums, but it barely got any airplay on country radio stations because, as Jones bitterly said, they were not playing that kind of country music anymore.
If Wynette didn’t know how to tame her husband’s wild ways, Jones’s fourth wife, Nancy Sepulvado, did. He would credit her with saving his life from both alcohol and cocaine addictions and she managed a career that would reach new heights after the release of his biggest hit, "He Stopped Loving Her Today," in 1980. Jones initially balked at recording the song because he thought it was just too depressing.
George Jones, like Wynette (who died in 1998), Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Kitty Wells, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings, carved a unique and indelible mark in the history of country music. The greatest tribute to their artistry may simply be the fact that, no matter how many pretenders may follow, there will never be anyone quite like them. They didn’t need amps, pyrotechnics, and 40 piece orchestras. Those things are only distractions from what real country uncanny ability to convey all of life’s sadness and its disappointments through a song.
Alden Graves is a Banner columnist.