The Devil in George Jones

The survivor of a long and torturous journey, George Jones stands alone as the greatest country singer alive.
AP

The great country singer George Jones was best known for his longtime association with Nashville, where he earned his reputation as perhaps the greatest country singer who has ever lived. But Jones, who died this morning at the age of 81, was a product of east Texas—born in Saratoga, busked on the streets of Beaumont, worked at a radio statio in Jasper and lived for a time in Vidor. Here is a feature profile of him that Texas Monthly ran in 1994.

 

LIKE A HONKY-TONK ORPHEUS RETURNED FROM THE dead, George Jones, the world’s greatest country singer, is alive and sober.

 “I ain’t touched a drink in ten years,” Jones will tell you. A little more than a decade ago, he was drinking himself into a straightjacket, but now the dark-starred Jones, at 62, is once again on top of the world. Lately, on record, he has lent his voice to some intriguing duets. On “Never Bit a Bullet Like This,” the single from his last album, High-Tech Redneck, he was joined by Sammy Kershaw, one of his many young country idolaters. His collaboration with B.B. King was the standout on the recent multiartist album of duets, Rhythm Country & Blues . And his forthcoming Bradley Barn Sessions, scheduled for release this fall and fast becoming one of the most eagerly anticipated records ever to come out of Nashville, is an album of duets with ex-wife Tammy Wynette, Keith Richards, and others. But onstage, Jones, as he has throughout most of his long career, continues to stand alone, the survivor of a forty-year journey down a rugged road that would have killed lesser men.

On a winter night in his dressing-room suite at Bally’s Casino Resort in Las Vegas, Jones strolled back and forth, chain-smoking Barclay cigarettes. He is short and paunchy, and his high-heeled cowboy boots did not do much to enhance his height. The weight that he has put on in his renewed health, combined with his facial characteristics that long ago inspired the nickname Possum, made him appear more possumlike than ever before. His white hair, fastidiously styled and always in place, with impeccable scimitar sideburns, was like a sculptured pinnacle of incongruous permanence atop a distinctly mortal shell. Beneath his brown eyes, his cheeks were striated with deep fissures that seemed less the natural carvings of age than the ravages of mortification. When he grinned, the furrows were less obvious, but when his expression was blank or subtly scowled, as was more often the case, they were like the scars of a clawing.

At his Bally’s show the night before, he had worn a glittery black suit that was made for him by Manuel of Nashville, the former protégé of and successor to Nudie Cohn of North Hollywood, the tailor who embroidered the musical notes on Hank Williams’ lapels, designed Elvis’ gold lamé tuxedo, and taught a generation of country singers that green and pink were complementary colors. Tonight Jones wore crisp blue jeans and a Western shirt. When it was time for him to go on, he slapped his gut—that  symbol of his return from the dead—and smiled once, his attitude changing from one of playfulness to one of tired resignation. “Let’s get this over with,” he said.

His band, the Jones Boys, had already taken the stage of the Celebrity Showroom. These six young men constitute a basic honky-tonk band, one that differs only in its degree of skill and its casual, long-haired appearance from the bands Jones sang with thirty-odd years ago. Back in those days, a good night’s pay was $50 for three or four hours of music. These days, Jones gets $20,000 to $50,000 a show, and he plays 120 or so shows a year. He had opened his show at Bally’s the night before with his anthem, “No Show Jones,” which he used to perform with Merle Haggard. “This is the last night I’m ever going to do that stupid song,” he had said. Tonight he opened, as usual, with the same song. “We’re gonna have a ball tonight,” he declared, as he does every night. “We’re gonna have a good time. We might be here till 4 in the morning.” He did a total of seven songs—then, “Good night, everybody. Thank you!” He was off in less than 23 minutes.

 At a concession stand in the lobby area, there were GJ-monogrammed shot glasses, NO SHOW license plates, and “Rockin’ With the Possum” T-shirts, embroidered caps, and satin tour jackets. In the casino, George, his wife, Nancy, and I sat at a blackjack table, as we had last night, donating some several thousand dollars to Satan. Nancy drew two cards totaling twelve. “Should I hit it, honey?” she asked George. “I would,” he said. She drew a ten, and the dealer took her chips. “It’s only money,” said George, pushing forward several $100 and $500 chips. He was happy. He was finished with Las Vegas. Tomorrow a plane would be flying him and Nancy home to Tennessee. “I miss my girls,” he said. He was talking about his cows. It is no exaggeration to say that Jones is far more enamored with his cows than with his career. Country music today is the domain of a new generation of rock-nurtured singers. Garth Brooks, presently the most successful of country performers, has also become an international pop star, selling more albums last year than anyone else in the world. The music itself, which ranks with rap as one of the hottest markets in America, bears little resemblance to the music of George Jones, whose traditionally rooted, hard-core sound is today an anomaly in Nashville. Yet even for Garth Brooks, “George Jones is king.”

Jones, in fact, has always been just about every country singer’s favorite country singer. For the old-timers and young bloods alike, his voice possesses a quality that others can only envy and emulate. On a good night, Jones’s audience experiences something of the beguilement that has made

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