The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones
By Rich Kienzle
(Dey Street/William Morrow, 280 pages, $27.99)
Like most people and most genres, country music has gone through phases. No way to put exact dates on these periods. But before the early fifties, near the time that Hank Williams Sr.’s too short life came to an end, what’s now called country music was usually referred to as hillbilly. Very descriptive of the twangy music of mostly mountain people in the South.
But not long after the war, many of these folks came down from the mountains and started farming the flat land, or moved to town to work as truck drivers, mechanics, construction workers, or cops. Some drove cabs or tended bar. Many remained or became enlisted soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines. Though others liked it too, these folks, many leading hard lives, became the backbone of the audience for the white soul music that came to be known as country. Sometimes country and western. (There were some differences between the Texas and Nashville strains, but far more similarities.)
The last great hillbilly, without a doubt, was Hank Sr. Those who heard “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” and “Lovesick Blues” back then knew there was something new and fine in the world. I heard these on the car radio as a lad riding with my father — a bigger fan of country than whom you could hardly find — in the ’36 Chevy coupe the family owned, but didn’t recognize their importance at the time. To me then they were just songs that Dad liked, though I later learned to appreciate them.
By the time Hank had gone on, hillbilly was well on its way to morphing into country, which flowered from late Hank through the seventies, only beginning to show cracks in its foundation by the mid-eighties. Few who care about the music would disagree that the greatest singer of this golden age was George Jones.
Jones’s personal life may have been an extended train wreck — he seemed to make only two kinds of life choices, really bad and horrible. Exhibit A in this regard is when Jones’s third wife, country singer and heart-throb Tammy Wynette, tired of his extended drunks and awful behavior when he was in the bag, told him he could have the bottle or he could have her, but he couldn’t have both. Incredibly, he chose the bottle. (George, you dumb ass!) But his music was magic. And it made him one of the most loved and respected of performers. George Jones, because of his music, and because of the decent, humble, and loyal fellow he usually was when he was sober, may well have enjoyed more forgiveness than any three people in the history of the world.
Comes now a well-crafted new biography of the Possum (check the close-set eyes and sharp nose of the young George and you’ll understand how he earned this sobriquet) by country music journalist Rich Kienzle. Jones’s latest chronicler divides his time between the music that some say could make the angels cry, and a personal life that the word dysfunctional doesn’t begin to touch. Because of his well-known operatic battles with the bottle and his later in life taste for cocaine, one of the biggest surprises when the world learned of Jones’s death on April 26, 2013, was that he had somehow managed to live 81 years.
The book’s title comes from the 1974 song of the same name which includes most of the ingredients that led so many to conclude that Jones was the greatest country singer ever: a straightforward and expressive baritone that exudes feeling and honestly, fairly caressing a song. Traditional country songs are stories, and Jones singing was a character in these stories. He lived his songs as he sang them in a way probably only matched by Patsy Cline.
The great songs, and the chaotic and self-destructive life that came with them, are all here in Kienzle’s book. Nothing new — Jones’s triumphs and peccadillos have been well publicized. But it is set out chronologically in workmanlike but accessible prose. Kienzle is clearly sympathetic to Jones and a great appreciator of his music. But he makes no attempt to sugar-coat any of Jones’s less attractive traits or deplorable behavior. He tells the story, warts and all. (Jones himself fesses up in his 1996 memoir I Lived to Tell It All, making no excuses for his swinish behavior. The possum, for all his faults, was no weasel.)
The George Jones story starts in 1931 in the poor Thicket area of East Texas near the town of Saratoga. His father, a truck driver and pipe fitter, was an alcoholic who could be violent toward his children and wife. Kienzle’s psychologizing, happily, doesn’t extend beyond suggesting that George may have partly inherited his taste for the bottle and his tendency to start bar fights (not all that smart or safe, as the adult George was five foot seven and usually around 150 pounds) from his father. But no one doubts that the hard scrabble lives of Jones and the other country artists of the era, and that of their audiences, are reflected in the songs.
The cavalcade of catastrophe that was the life of George Jones includes four marriages (the last one, prosecution must stipulate, mostly successful, because his final better half had the patience of a glacier), alcohol and drug abuse with the arrests attendant upon these habits, so many missed concert dates because of his drinking that his second nickname, after the Possum, was “No-Show Jones,” and bankruptcies and lawsuits for non-payment of this or that because he was about as disciplined with his finances as he was with his concert calendar. He endured several hospitalizations for rehab that didn’t take.
In between all this misery and chaos, came an endless parade of country hits, including Jones’s signature song, 1980’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” that many consider the greatest country song of all time. (I have friends in this camp, as well as in the camp of “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”) OK, OK, defense stipulates the song is maudlin. But it explores the most consistent themes of country music, unrequited love and yearning. And few singers other than Jones could have made this one compelling, as it has been for country fans for decades.
Jones’s other virtuoso ballads include “She Thinks I Still Care,” “I Always Get Lucky With You,” “Walk Through This World With Me,” “Still Doing Time,” “The Window Up Above,” and “Tennessee Whiskey.” (Apologies if I’ve left out one of your favorites.) He also did some novelty tunes, including “White Lightning” and “The Race Is On.” There are also some fine duets with Wynette, recorded after their pyrotechnic marriage was over. (They couldn’t endure at one address, but they continued to admire each other professionally.) The best of these include “Near You,” “Golden Ring,” and “We’re Gonna Hold On.”
This body of work not only won Jones millions of fans, but also every award in the country music field. He even received recognition from the world outside of country. In 2003 he was awarded the National Medal of the Arts at the White House by country fan George W. Bush. Artists outside of country who’ve expressed admiration for Jones’s work include Elvis Costello, James Taylor, Keith Richards, Frank Sinatra, and Ray Charles. This last guy of course is not entirely outside of the country world, having put out a couple of very fine country albums himself, though with a distinct R&B twist. Charles and Jones even did a novelty duet in 1984.
Jones’s final years were spent pretty much between the ditches, thanks in large part to the work and patience of Nancy Sepulvado. In marriages, the fourth time was the charm for George. At the end he was mostly sober and far less self-destructive. But the sadness that dogged the Possum’s last years was the fact while he was a much-honored elder statesman of country music, his songs were hardly ever played on country stations anymore. Nor were those of other traditional country singers. The country industry — publishing and radio — in an attempt to capture younger listeners, was moving to a new pop/rock sound that Jones had no interest in. Jones was always straight country, with no interest in evolving to anything else.
The change, this new phase, whatever it turns out being called, was probably inevitable. The sons and daughters of those cops and firemen and hair dressers who loved traditional country grew up in less difficult circumstances than their parents, went to college, and in so many cases did not develop a taste for the drinking and cheating songs, and the lonesome yearning songs, that made up the beating heart of traditional country. There are still some country singers around with a traditional sound — George Strait and Alan Jackson come to mind. But tune in a “country” station today and you’ll likely encounter bland pop tunes that folks like me, with traditional country in their DNA, not only can’t see what is country about them, but can’t even tell what is supposed to be country about them. Listen to Alan Jackson lament about this in this 1991 song.
I appreciate those who’ve stuck with me this far, aware as I am that country music isn’t for everyone, not even during its golden age, as Barbara Mandrell taught us (with a cameo from George) in her 1994 “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool.” For many, country has never been cool (or for some, even endurable). But it’s an important form that helped sustain many during part of the great American post-war story. George Jones was king of that form, and a great but flawed American worth knowing about. Rich Kienzle tells his story well.
Photo: Grave of George Jones at Woodlawn Cemetery in Nashville, TN (Thomas R Machnitzki/Creative Commons)