George Jones, a native of the Southeast Texas town of Saratoga who broke into the music business in Houston, was far and away one of the most-decorated and best-selling male vocalists in country-music history.
The man once known as “No-Show Jones” and always as “Possum” was arguably best-known for ballads like “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “Color of the Blues,” and my favorite, “She Thinks I Still Care.” His songs went beyond heartbreaking and landed somewhere closer to despondent. But he had another side of his personality, one that can best be described as a downright rascal. That side would pop up now and again in sunnier songs like “White Lightnin”, “The Race Is On” — despite the subject matter — and ’80s hit “The One I Loved Back Then.”
A shy person by nature, drugs to overcome his crippling stage fright and enliven the tedium of the road, and thus left behind a long history of brawls and arrests that would rival any of today’s TMZ hit parade. In fact, long before today’s tabloid-TV saturation, Jones set a dubious precedent with his early-’80s confrontation with a Nashville cameraman after he had been pulled over on the highway.
Jones’ binge drinking and use of amphetamines on the road caught up to him in 1967 and he had to be admitted into a neurological hospital to seek treatment for his drinking. Jones would go to extreme lengths for a drink if the thirst was on him.
Before he cleaned up and settled down, which took a while, Jones could trash a hotel room as well as any British rock star, and once shot a bunch of holes in the floor of his tour bus. He recounts many such incidents in his is must-read 1996 autobiography, the (very) aptly named I Lived to Tell It All, but the most famous of all has to be what has become known as “the lawn mower story.” He was still living in Southeast Texas and married to second wife (of four), Shirley Corley.
“Once, when I had been drunk for several days, Shirley decided she would make it physically impossible for me to buy liquor. I lived about eight miles from Beaumont and the nearest liquor store. She knew I wouldn’t walk that far to get booze, so she hid the keys to every car we owned and left.
But she forgot about the lawn mower. I can vaguely remember my anger at not being able to find keys to anything that moved and looking longingly out a window at a light that shone over our property. There, gleaming in the glow, was that ten-horsepower rotary engine under a seat; a key glistening in the ignition.
I imagine the top speed for that old mower was five miles per hour. It might have taken an hour and a half or more for me to get to the liquor store, but get there I did.”
Curiously, in her 1979 autobiography Stand By Your Man, Tammy Wynette claims the incident occurred while SHE was married to Jones, maintaining that she woke up at one o’clock in the morning to find her husband gone:
“I got into the car and drove to the nearest bar 10 miles away. When I pulled into the parking lot there sat our rider-mower right by the entrance. He’d driven that mower right down a main highway. He looked up and saw me and said, ‘Well, fellas, here she is now. My little wife, I told you she’d come after me.’
That story has long been country-music folklore, and Jones grew to have a sense of humor about it. Besides his own “Honky Tonk Song”, he also appears on a riding mower in the videos for Hank Williams Jr.’s “All My Rowdy Friends are Coming Over Tonight” and Vince Gill’s “One More Last Chance.”
Jones became aware of Tammy Wynette because their tours were booked by the same agency and their paths sometimes crossed after Wynette’s first minor hit “Apartment #9” in 1966, which was written by Johnny Paycheck. Wynette was married to songwriter Don Chapel, who was also the opening act for her shows at the time. The three became friends but eventually Jones took more than a passing fancy to Wynette, who was eleven years his junior and grew up listening to all of his records. According to his autobiography, Jones went to their house for supper and while she was fixing the meal Wynette and Chapel got into a heated exchange with Chapel calling his wife “a son of a bitch”. Jones wrote: “I felt rage fly all over me. I jumped from my chair, put my hands under the dinner table, and flipped it over. Dishes, utensils, and glasses flew in all directions. Don’s and Tammy’s eyes got about as big as the flying dinner plates.” Jones professed his love for Wynette on the spot and the couple was married in 1969.
Jones and Wynette became known as “Mr. & Mrs. Country Music” in the early 1970s, scoring several big hits, including “We’re Gonna Hold On”, “Let’s Build A World Together”, “Golden Ring”, “Near You,” and “(We’re Not) The Jet Set”. When asked about recording Jones and Wynette, Sherill told Dan Daley in 2002, “It did increase my scotch intake some. We started out trying to record the vocals together, but George drove Tammy crazy with his phrasing. He never, ever did it the same way twice. He could make a five-syllable word out of ‘church.’ Finally, Tammy said, ‘Record George and let me listen to it, and then do my vocal after we get his on tape.’ Tammy was a very quick study.”
In October 1970, shortly after the birth of their only child Tamala Georgette, Jones was straitjacketed and committed to a padded cell at the Watson Clinic in Lakeland, Florida after a drunken bender; he was kept there to detoxify for ten days before being released with a prescription for Librium. Jones managed longer stretches of sobriety with Wynette than he had enjoyed in years but as the decade wore on his drinking and erratic behavior worsened, leading to the couple’s divorce in 1976.
Jones accepted the responsibility for the failure of the marriage but vehemently denied Wynette’s allegations in her autobiography that he beat her and fired a shotgun at her. Remarkably, Jones and Wynette continued playing shows and drawing crowds in the years after their divorce, as fans began to see their songs mirroring their stormy relationship. In 1980, they recorded the album Together Again and scored a hit with “Two Story House”. Jones also spoke publicly about his hopes for a reconciliation and would jokingly reference Tammy in some of his songs – during performances of his 1981 hit “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will)” he would sing “Tammy’s memory will” – but the recrimination continued unabated. After years of sniping, Jones and Wynette appeared to make peace in the 1990s, recording a final album, One, and even touring together again before Wynette’s death in 1998. In 1995 Jones told Country Weekly,
“Like the old saying goes, it takes time to heal things and they’ve been healed quite a while.”
He vehicular misadventures didn’t stop with the lawn tractor, either. In March 1999, he was seriously injured in a one-car accident near Nashville when he lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a bridge abutment. Jones had supposedly been talking to the president of his record label and then his stepdaughter before the crash, where he suffered a collapsed lung and ruptured liver. Besides Jones’ own song “Choices,” the incident inspired the memorable Drive-By Truckers song “George Jones Talkin’ Cell Phone Blues.”
I found out something else while researching the ol’ Possum. He could have had another big hit after “He Stopped Loving Her” in the late ’80s, but apparently passed on “All My Exes Live In Texas,” opening the door to another George: King Strait.
“My excuse on those songs was because a jukebox was playing in the background and it distracted my attention,” he said. “Truthfully, you end up passing on songs that do turn out to be hits but maybe they weren’t really right for you so you can’t second-guess yourself.”