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Music Preview: Stone Cold sober at last

Tuesday, November 27, 2001

By Rich Kienzle

I'm hangin' in there because I have a real strong love for traditional country music. It's like a religion to me," George Jones declares from his horse ranch 20 miles south of Nashville. "We have fans that know we're not phony; we never have been. That's the reason I never hid my drinking, [never] tried to hide anything I've done wrong."

He turned 70 this past September. It was a benchmark once unthinkable, given a troubled past that repeatedly took him down the same Lost Highway that claimed Hank Williams and Gram Parsons. Long acknowledged as the Gold Standard for country singers, admired by Ray Charles, Keith Richards and Elvis Costello, he's been immortalized in his friend Alan Jackson's hit "Don't Rock the Jukebox."

Confident and earnest, the Country Music Hall of Famer reflects on his career, his wilder days, a new album and a Nashville he often finds perplexing.

George Jones

Where: Pepsi Roadhouse, Burgettstown.

When: 7 p.m. Saturday.

Tickets: $45 to $65; 412-323-1919.


He may alternate between "I" and "we" when referring to himself, yet his remarks never straddle the fence.

His new album, "The Rock: Stone Cold Country 2001," includes "Beer Run," a novelty duet with Garth Brooks (also on Brooks' "Scarecrow" album) that returned Jones to country radio, an industry that's shut out most veteran singers. He's heartened by the uptick, but realistic. "[As] long as we can keep radio halfway with us, we have a chance," he says. "Most radio's always played us. It's just the reporting stations that weren't playing older artists. But we got a little lift on 'Beer Run.' I don't know how long that'll last."

Singing was all that ever mattered to George Glenn Jones. Born in a log cabin in the East Texas Piney Woods during World War II, he quit school to sing for tips on Houston street corners. He honed his craft after the war in Beaumont's violent, bloody honky-tonks, emulating Hank Williams' lonesome twang, Roy Acuff's raw emotionalism and, later, Lefty Frizzell's unique phrasing.

His devotion to those idols backfired during a 1954 audition for Starday Records, a new Beaumont label co-owned by Houston record distributor Pappy Daily. "Pappy listened to me sing for about two hours, and he came in and said, 'Son, I've heard you sing like Roy Acuff and Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. But can you sing like George Jones?' "

He got the message. Despite the Hank flavor of his 1955 debut hit, "Why Baby Why," he evolved beyond those heroes, developing a rich, seminal style that radiated humanity, a phrasing that wrenched every bit of nuance from a lyric and then some. Fans made "The Window Up Above," "White Lightning" and "She Thinks I Still Care" country classics. His voice inspired generations of stars from Buck Owens and Johnny Paycheck to Sammy Kershaw and Tracy Byrd.

Onstage or off, Jones, who performs Saturday at the Pepsi Roadhouse in Burgettstown, did nothing in moderation. His boozing and hell-raising were the stuff of legend. With two divorces behind him, he married Tammy Wynette in 1969. Performing as "Mr. and Mrs. Country Music," they enjoyed hit records separately and together. Then, as the marriage publicly unraveled, hit duets like "We're Gonna Hold On" echoed their real life woes.

After their 1975 divorce, Jones went over the edge. He became a tabloid fixture, drinking his way through a gantlet of well-publicized lawsuits, violence, arrests, bankruptcies, car chases and cocaine abuse. His endless trail of missed concerts replaced his affectionate nickname "The Possum" with the derisive "No Show Jones."


In a career spanning more than 47 years, George Jones has recorded hundreds of songs. Fans have their favorites; Jones has his:

"Why Baby Why," 1955

"White Lightning," 1959

"Accidentally on Purpose," 1960

"The Window Up Above," 1960

"She Thinks I Still Care," 1962

"Open Pit Mine," 1962

"Things Have Gone to Pieces," 1965

"The Door," 1974

"The Grand Tour," 1974

"He Stopped Loving Her Today," 1980


Ironically, his artistry reached its peak during that dissolute period, as he channeled his inner torment into cathartic, moving dramas like his 1980 classic "He Stopped Loving Her Today" and the angst-ridden "Still Doin' Time." Staring into the abyss, his art sustained him. "The music was so strong in my heart, my belief in country music and what I was doin'," he says.

It took years and various false starts until he attained sobriety, equilibrium and solvency. Aided by his 1983 marriage to longtime companion Nancy, who manages him today, he rebuilt his reputation.

Then around 1998, Jones fell off the wagon. Terrified, he walked into the woods at his ranch. "I said, 'Lord, I don't care what it takes. Make me straighten up once and for all and get my life together. Hit me in the head with a sledgehammer, if you have to.' I didn't know He was gonna hit me so hard."

That hammer hit March 6, 1999. Driving his SUV a mile from home, Jones slammed into a concrete bridge. Despite critical injuries and double pneumonia, he made a surprisingly quick recovery. After a police investigation yielded evidence that included a half-empty vodka bottle in the vehicle, he pleaded guilty to DUI.

"It put the fear of God in me," he admits. "I knew I was no spring chicken anymore. I quit smokin'. I quit drinkin'. I even quit drinkin' coffee. All I carry with me now is a bottle of water. I'm clean cut, and I want to enjoy my final days and know what life's all about for a change. I'm tired of being in a foggy jungle."

One foggy jungle he can't escape is Nashville, where Music Row pays lip service to a Jones or Merle Haggard, then spurns them in favor of fashionable young faces packaged in safe, radio-friendly musical formulas. In his 1997 autobiography "I Lived To Tell It All," Jones complained, "I don't care too much for many of today's young country singers. They're not country -- they're clones."

Today, he clarifies that view -- to a point.

"It's really not their fault. I talk to so many that would have loved to record a country album -- traditional country. And the label people, the money people, don't want that."

The triumph of image consultants also rankles him.

"[Artists] gotta go get their teeth fixed and scars done away with. What the hell has all that got to do with singin'?

"You don't hardly hear good traditional country anymore except Alan Jackson and George Strait. Other than that, you got pop music. They should be in the pop field and get the hell out of country. Let us get back to doin' our thing. There's some great country singers out there. Their voice isn't being put to good traditional music. They have no say-so like we used to have. We could do about whatever we wanted to do."

True enough. Jones spent 36 years of his 47-year recording career with just two producers: Pappy Daily and Billy Sherrill. While Daily produced Jones for Starday and three other labels from 1954-70, Jones explains that he "timed the songs and wrote out the paperwork. I worked with the musicians and we worked out the arrangements."

At Epic Records, Sherrill, an ex-R&B musician enamored of Phil Spector's symphonic "Wall of Sound" pop productions, was hands-on. On "He Stopped Loving Her," he added soaring strings as a foil for Jones' intense vocals, insisting the singer re-record those vocals to perfection. Jones didn't object. "If (Billy) had a lot of strong belief in the song itself," he says, "that's when he could do his best work."

His still-expressive baritone dominates every track of "The Rock." An ex-Marine, he speaks enthusiastically of Jamie O'Hara's tune "50,000 Names," a plaintive tribute to the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial. After Sept. 11, he says, "people are a lot more patriotic today than they seem to have been in the past. We might have had a good wakeup call. I think it's bringin' the people together a lot more."

"Wood and Wire," a sentimental ode to guitar pickers whose dreams of stardom never materialized, is another personal favorite.

Looking to 2002, as he plans a gospel album, it appears George Jones has transcended mere survival, entering his 71st year both fulfilled and contented.

"I'm very satisfied how things have turned out. Nobody with any right mind, as I feel like I have today, would have enjoyed or wanted to live a life like I did. But we all get caught up in a web sometimes, when we're going through life. I was one of them that got caught in this middle of the jungle, so to speak, and took everything for granted and life was just one big party. We have to wake up to those facts.

"I'm glad to still be in the business and competin'. As long as we got fans out there, I'm gonna keep recording and workin' the road as long as they wanna be entertained by 'The Possum.' I enjoy it just as much as I ever did."

Rich Kienzle is a nationally known country music journalist, critic and historian. He resides in Greensburg.

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