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 him legendary. Working the hidden veins beneath the phrase and rhyme of every song, his voice is one of rare prismatic inflections that transmute the familiar light of the timeworn into subtle new glimmerings. While he and his idol, Hank Williams, have both affected generations with a plaintive veracity of voice that has set them apart, Jones has an additional gift—a voice of exceptional range, natural elegance, and lucent tone. Gliding toward high tenor, plunging toward deep bass, the magisterial portamento of his onward-coursing baritone emits white-hot sparks and torrents of blue, investing his poison love songs with a tragic gravity and inflaming his celebrations of the honky-tonk ethos with the hellfire of abandon. As Emmylou Harris has said, “When you hear George Jones sing, you are hearing a man who takes a song and makes it a work of art—always. He has a remarkable voice that flows out of him effortlessly, and quietly, but with an edge that comes from the stormy part of the heart.”
The late Roy Acuff, who was Jones’s earliest childhood singing idol, lived to say, “I would give anything if I could sing like George Jones.” Waylon Jennings has said much the same: “If we could all sound like we wanted to, we’d all sound like George Jones.” Though Acuff was a symbol of country music’s conservative old guard, and though Jennings’ own recording career had been nearly brought to an end by the present inimical state of the industry, their esteem for Jones has been shared by the mavericks who have taken their place. Ricky Van Shelton said, “George puts so much emotion, so much feeling into his songs, and that’s what it’s all about. I just can’t imagine what country music would have been like without George Jones.” For Randy Travis, “It’s almost like he’s lived every minute of every word that he sings.”
When I first met him, eighteen years ago, George Jones struck me, fancifully, as a prisoner. His life was falling apart, and since he had taken increasingly to missing dates and vanishing without notice or a trace, his career was crumbling as well. It was April 1976 and we were in Nashville, where Jones was to perform a goodwill show at the Tennessee State Penitentiary. To ensure that he stayed in town, his record company seemed to be keeping him under guarded watch in his booking agent’s basement. But, beyond this droll subterranean captivity, his spirit seemed to be darkened by a real, indwelling thralldom.
Back in 1962, Jones recorded a song called “Warm Red Wine.” It was an old song—Bob Wills had recorded it, and Ernest Tubb too—but there was something about Jones’s version, something about the pure, stark sincerity with which he delivered the lament “I’m a prisoner of drink who will never escape” that was uncommonly disquieting. It was more than a testimony to the power of his singing; it seemed a personal testament, a wail from the abyss, as well. A few days after our meeting, Jones would publicly announce that he had won his battle against booze. But this was not true, and seeing him that morning in his sunless lair, as he paced and sat and fidgeted and rose and paced, buoyant one moment, despondent and anxious the next, dressed in an immaculate athletic suit, chain-smoking cigarettes and swigging Heineken from the bottle, I could not help thinking of the way he sang that song.
During that basement encounter, he was friendly, shy, and vacant. That he was (and for the past twenty years had been) the most successful singer in the business was something that seemed far less important to him than the bottle of beer in his hand. One could readily believe the accounts of those who had known him for many years: that he had not changed much at all and that he had been impervious to fame and fortune.
I came away from that meeting liking him but feeling that I had been in the company of a man whose unequivocal soulfulness abided beneath an inert mind. I was not alone. Others who knew and worked with him shared similar feelings. But surely, I thought, his blankness must be an illusion, a deception. Who was this man who belied his own apparent hollowness by singing as if his soul were on fire? What was it that made him the greatest country singer alive, and what was it that had driven him in a panic to the edge of his own waiting grave? I thought about these things, wanting to figure them out, when I began spending time with him again recently. Joking backstage, gambling, or idling, Jones was easygoing. But whenever the conversation was steered beyond friendly small talk, he countered with a sort of disappointed resistance. Time and again, he promised that we would sit down with a tape recorder. Christmas passed, the new year began, and still he was evasive. I was watching television in a Brentwood, Tennessee, motel room when Susan Levy, a publicist at MCA Records—Jones’s label since 1991—and Nancy Jones worked out a plot by which we might snare George into that long-promised sit-down. Jones had become involved in the marketing of George Jones Country Gold Dog Food. (“If George says it’s good…then it’s good by George!”) The stuff is made in Red Bay, Alabama, by Sunshine Mills, the producer of several other lines of dog food. Tomorrow Jones was to meet with Sunshine Mills executives. I would travel to Red Bay with Susan, who would feign being called back to Nashville on emergency business. This would leave no alternative but for me to make the 185-mile return trip aboard George’s custom-made Liberty Coach bus. The next day, as we left Alabama at dusk, Jones at first was angry at Nancy for her part in the plot. Then, after a fashion, he loosened up.
The town of Saratoga lies in the East Texas woodlands known as the Big Thicket. The broken stretch of FM 770 that is Saratoga’s main thoroughfare passes a few lumbering oil pumps, the First United Pentecostal Church, Brown’s Gun Shop and Feed, and Don’s Barber Shop. Hidden back among the trees is the Big Thicket Museum. Near the road leading to the museum is a sign, “Saratoga, Texas. Birthplace of George Jones.” It was here that, after moving from one Big Thicket rent home to another, following work from logging camp to sawmill to oil field, George Washington Jones, his wife, Clara Patterson, and their growing brood finally settled; here that, on September 12, 1931, in a small log-and-slab-board cabin, George Glenn Jones, the second son and last born of the Joneses’ eight children, drew his first breath.
By the time his namesake was born, the elder Jones’s reputation in Saratoga was that of a no-good drunkard who was undeserving of the decent wife who coldly endured him. Clara, who was a preacher’s daughter, raised George, like his elder brother and sisters, in the Baptist fold. “My mama,” Jones would say, “loved me more than anybody ever did.” It was at her side, in church, that he learned to sing. But it was his father who gave him his first guitar.
“Little old Gene Autry guitar,” Jones told me as the bus rolled through northern Alabama in the rain, heading back to Nashville from the factory that produces George Jones Country Gold. “Had a picture of a cowboy on a horse with a lariat, and Gene Autry’s name. My Sunday school teacher taught me the chords on it. I just fell in love with it, and I spent all my time with the guitar.” On Saturday nights, live from Nashville, there was the Grand Ole Opry, whose newest star was a young Tennessean named Roy Acuff. George was mesmerized by Acuff’s high nasal style, which became an indelible influence on his own singing.
“My daddy always got my sister and me to sing when I was a kid,” Jones remembered. These were not pleasant experiences for George or his sister Doris, as they were roused from sleep by their father when he came home drunk in the middle of the night—alone or with his cronies—demanding entertainment and threatening violence if he did not get it. The resentment that George harbored for his father’s drunken brutishness grew more intense with every command performance.
In 1942 the Jones family moved to a government-subsidized housing project in the port town of Beaumont, where George’s father found work as a shipyard pipe fitter. Jones finished the seventh grade and then left school behind. In Beaumont he became aware of a new sort of country music, something quite different from the old-timey strong-band stuff that still represented the sound of the Grand Ole Opry. Lusty, capricious, raucous, and reflecting the sophisticated influence of Western swing, the new amplified music known as honky-tonk both celebrated the wild side of life and lamented its wages. Cliff Bruner, Ernest Tubb, Floyd Tillman, and other Texans defined the honky-tonk spirit and sound that overtook country music in the forties. But the supreme honky-tonk singer, the greatest voice that George Jones had ever heard, belonged to a newcomer from Alabama. Self-doomed and self-tormenting, Hank Williams wrote and sang of a world where love danced endlessly with loss, sin with salvation, laughter with despair. There was something in Hank’s songs and the way he sang them that made a dark poem of all those things that Jones himself did not yet, and in a way never would, understand: the drunken desperation of his father, the washed-in-the-blood Baptist howlings, and the ways of the heart that drove one man to whiskey, another to prayer, another to song, and another to all three.
Many years later, Jones would try to explain what it was about Hank that moved him so. “It was the songs,” he would say, “the way he delivered them.” He would search for a way to describe what he had heard in them, but in the end, “just a lot of heart and soul” was all that he could find. By the time he was eighteen, Jones stood five feet seven. It was as big as he would ever get. His voice was something else: as big as the Texas sky and growing. According to Huey Meaux, a record producer who grew up near the Big Thicket and has known Jones since the late forties, George was like any other kid. He said, “In them days, all you did was went to dance halls and drank beer and fought all night.” Though Jones would maintain that “it was probably in fifty-six or fifty-seven” that he began drinking, Huey clearly recalled that George “always liked his whiskey.”
It was while performing in Beaumont that Jones met Dorothy Bonvillion, the daughter of a local banker. To those who knew him, it seemed that eighteen-year-old George rushed into marriage, seeking all the security and happiness that family life had never provided him. Ceding to the wishes of his cajun father-in-law, George took a regular job as a housepainter. Other jobs followed. He drove a soda truck and worked as a funeral home ambulance attendant. But George’s heart was in the joints, and his marriage fell apart in less than a year. In July 1951 Dorothy Jones, who was six months pregnant, filed for divorce, charging that her husband was “a man of violent temper” and “addicted to the drinking of alcoholic beverages.” In the months after the divorce, Jones was jailed twice for nonpayment of support. That fall, several weeks after Dorothy gave birth to their child, a daughter named Susan, George was brought to court again. Rather than return to jail, he joined the Marines.
By the time Jones returned to civilian life, Jack Starnes, a local Beaumont entrepreneur, and Pappy Daily, the operator of a Houston jukebox outfit, had started a little record company called Starday. In January 1954 Jones was invited to Starnes’s Beaumont home, where the walls of the back porch had been lined with cardboard egg crating to convert it into a studio. Of his first record, “No Money in This Deal,” Jones said, “Oh, it was just one of them stupid things you write at the time. Bunch of junk. It didn’t seem like junk so much back in those days, but it would be junk today.”
Later that year George began working as a disc jockey at KRTM in Beaumont. Gordon Baxter, who was also a deejay there, recalled that it was at KTRM that Jones was nicknamed Possum: “One of the better deejays, Slim Watts, took to calling him George P. Willicker Picklepuss Possum Jones. For one thing, he cut his hair short, like a possum’s belly. He had a possum’s nose and had stupid eyes, like a possum.”
Once again, Jones rushed into marriage. In September 1954, after a two-week courtship, he married eighteen-year-old Shirley Ann Corley. In October 1955, the month that Shirley gave birth to a son, Jeffrey Glenn, Jones had his first hit, and up-tempo goddam-her-eyes honky-tonk ditty called “Why, Baby, Why.” The record brought him to national prominence and served as his entrée to Louisiana Hayride, an influential Shreveport radio show on which Hank Williams had made his big-time debut and that now featured Elvis Presley. “I didn’t get to know him that well,” said Jones, recalling the days when he and Elvis were both at fame’s edge. “He stayed pretty much with his friends around him in the dressing room. Nobody seemed to get around him much any length of time and talk to him.” Except for the dressing room friends, Jones, a loner even backstage, could have been speaking of himself.
Though Jones would never acknowledge it, the rockabilly impulse of the early fifties had affected his sound as much as the lingering voices of Acuff and Williams. “Play It Cool, Man, Play It Cool,” recorded by Jones in 1954, several months before Elvis’ debut, had bordered on pure rockabilly, and in April 1956, Starday released a hard-core rockabilly record, “Rock It,” with “How Come It” on the flipside, under the name Thumper Jones. “I don’t guess I’m ever going to live that down,” Jones said. “I was actually getting started in the business about 1954 or so when all this rock and roll really started moving in, and of course, you know, you didn’t have stations that played all that much country to start with. So, especially with rock and roll getting as strong as it was at that time, it seemed like country music was really losing battle except for the three or four major artists that had it made at the time, like Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, some of those people. So we decided to try one, sort of rockabillylike. I was sort of ashamed to even do it at the time because I was so country, so I just used a different name, went under the name of Thumper Jones. Hell, when you’re starving to death, you’ll try anything.”
“There was no such thing as production at Starday. We’d go in with the band, we’d go over the song, I’d look over and tell the steel player to take a break or kick it off, and I’d get the fiddle to play a turnaround in the middle. I’d just let them know if we were going to tag it or not. We’d just go through it. We didn’t take the pains of making several takes. Back then, over three or four takes, they’d say, ‘My God, this is costing us money.’ So we’d just get it down as good as we could. If we went a little flat or sharp in a place or two, they’d say, ‘The public ain’t going to notice that, so put it out.’ So we did, and it wasn’t too successful, so I think maybe the public did notice it.” Nevertheless, the hits kept coming, and with each new recording, he sounded less and less like Hank Williams and more and more like George Jones. In the summer of 1958, Pappy Daily sold out his interest in Starday and negotiated a new deal with Mercury for Jones and himself. That July, when Shirley Jones gave birth to a second son, George named him in Pappy’s honor: Bryan Daily Jones. Huey Meaux, who credits Daily with helping his own career as a producer, said that George would have been lost without Pappy: “He was George’s career. He was George’s daddy. He was George’s everything. And George gave him a lot of goddam hell, man. Getting drunk, getting in trouble, getting in fights. Pappy was the only one that could sit down and talk to George. Pappy got George back together so many times it’s unreal.”
In 1959 George Jones, flush with newfound prosperity, moved his family to Vidor, eight miles north of Beaumont. The next year, at home in Vidor, Jones wrote a song called “The Window Up Above.” Of all the songs he has written, it remains his favorite. “I wrote it in about twenty minutes,” he said. “I just came in off the road, about eight in the morning. While breakfast was being fixed, I just sat down in the den and picked up the guitar, and it was as simple as that. Sometimes it’s hard to even figure where the ideas come from.” For Jones, “The Window Up Above” seemed to issue directly from a lifelong insecurity and ambivalence, a deep-rooted fear of what lurked beneath the dream of hearth and home and happiness. The song remained on the country charts for more than eight months, and George even had Nudie Cohn make him a stage suit based on it, a chartreuse affair replete with faces peering forlornly from sequin-stitched window frames.
Looking back, Jones would regard the early sixties as his finest period. “We did a lot of the pure country then,” he said. The late sixties, however, were a strange time for Jones. America was adrift in a fluorescent cloud of patchouli-scented ahimsa, and Jones, in his crew cut and his Nudie Cohn suits, seemed hopelessly out of sync. He began to let his hair grow out a bit, and he and Pappy gave folk rock their best shot with “Unwanted Babies,” a garbled protest song written for Jones by Peanut Montgomery. Combining his middle name and his mother’s maiden name, he released the record under the pseudonym Glen Patterson. “We did a certain type of song that we thought would sell at that time,” George said, taken aback at the mention of it. “But it wasn’t the type of song that I would have normally cut, and I just didn’t want to use my real name.” But perhaps his lowest moment was “The Poor Chinee,” which contained the unforgettable lyric “Me like bow-wow, very good chow-chow.”
In the fall of 1963 Jones’s father was committed to the alcoholics ward of a state asylum in Texas. In 1967, the year his father died, Jones himself entered a neurological hospital to seek treatment for his own drinking. His marriage was coming apart, and as his wife saw it, whiskey had caused the breach. Soon after his release from the hospital, George began accusing Shirley of having an affair with a Vidor businessman. “I remember George going one night and shooting his old lady’s boyfriend in the ass,” laughed Huey Meaux. Though all involved would later deny the alleged shotgun attack, it would remain a part of Beaumont legendry. They were divorced in 1968. George moved to Nashville; Shirley stayed behind and eventually married the businessman.
Two years before, George had met Tammy Wynette, a young hairdresser from Mississippi who had recently arrived in Nashville seeking supra-tonsorial fame and fortune. Now she was a star with four number one hits behind her. One night Jones interceded in an argument between her and her second husband, songwriter Don Chapel. The couple has not been married long, nor would they be, for George’s drunken profession of love for Wynette during the course of that angry night precipitated their breakup. As if in public celebration of their romance, Tammy’s recording of “Stand By Your Man” went to number one, and George soon responded with “I’ll Share My World With You.” Consolidating their shows, they took the road together, and in February 1969, they married. Tammy restyled her hair and pried him away from his surrogate father and longtime mentor, Pappy Daily.
They moved to Florida, where, in October 1970, Tammy gave birth to a daughter, Tamala Georgette. Once again, hearth and home were not enough, and it seemed that Huey Meaux was right, that George was lost without Pappy. Not long after the birth of Tamala, in the throes of a long and violent binge, Jones was straitjacketed and committed to a padded cell at the Watson Clinic in Lakeland, where he was kept to detoxify for ten days and then released with a prescription for Librium.
Joan Dew, the coauthor of Wynette’s autobiography, Stand By Your Man, believed that Tammy was not only distraught by George’s drinking but jaded by the marriage as well. “I think she really got bored with him very quick down there,” Dew said. “George is a little fuddy-duddy. He’s like a little old lady. He’s not exciting. He sits around and watches TV all day and goes fishing. George is only exciting onstage.”
George and Tammy returned to Nashville and bought a house on Tyne Boulevard in the exclusive Belle Meade section of town. In some of the rooms of their new home, they put shag carpeting on the ceiling. In the spring of 1974, the season of his mother’s death, George had the first of two immense number one hits, “The Grand Tour,” the song of a “lonely house that once was home sweet home.” In the fall, there followed “The Door,” an even bleaker song of martial dissolution and desertion. It was a song that involved the perplexities of his own melancholic youth; that the lyrics lead not to the understanding but to the plain, inevitable finality, and the ultimate abandonment, of his parents’ death seemed to deepen the haunted, and the haunting, qualities of his own voice.
In January 1975, while “The Door” was at the top of the charts, Tammy filed for divorce. George moved to Florence, Alabama, to be near his drinking buddy Peanut Montgomery and Peanut’s sister-in-law, Linda Welborn, with whom George had already taken up. By the time Tammy’s divorce was granted, in March, George had begun his long, slow descent to the bottom. That summer, he signed a management deal with a local hustler named Shug Baggot, who would later do time for cocaine trafficking. George, who had long indulged in amphetamines and whiskey, soon was addicted to cocaine as well, and though in the spring of 1976 he made a pretense of overcoming his problems and cowrote with Peanut Montgomery a heartfelt song called “A Drunk Can’t Be a Man,” his addictions worsened. That December he was sued for drunkenly assaulting two women in Nashville.
The news of Wynette’s brief marriage that year to a local realtor, and her subsequent marriage in the summer of 1978 to songwriter George Richey, seemed to further unhinge him. “I still love her, and that ain’t gonna change,” he said. During a nine-month period in 1977 and 1978, there would be fifteen break-ins at the Wynette home (once Tammy discovered the words “slut” and “pig” scrawled on her mirrors and television screen); and in October 1978, she would be abducted by a masked gunman, taken to an isolated spot, beaten, nearly strangled with her own panty hose, and finally thrown from the car, bruised, hysterical, and suffering a fractured jaw. Despite much speculation to the contrary, Jones would steadfastly deny any involvement in those doings. On the night after he turned 47, Jones fired a shot at Peanut Montgomery, who had recently quit drinking and found religion. “All right, you son of a bitch,” he had hollered before pulling the trigger, “see if your God can save you now!” A few weeks later, six days after the Wynette kidnapping, Jones, pleading that he was “addicted to alcohol,” sought mercy from a judge who had ordered his arrest for nonpayment of $36,000 in child-support payments due Tammy. In December, citing more than $1 million in debts, he filed for bankruptcy. Later that month he was arrested on charges of having assaulted and beaten his ex-girlfriend Linda Welborn.
By February 1979, he was homeless, deranged, and destitute, living in his car and barely able to digest the junk food on which he subsisted. He weighed under a hundred pounds, and his condition was such that it took him more than two years to complete My Very Special Guests, an album on which Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Elvis Costello, and other famous fans came to his vocal aid and support. In December, soon after the album was released, Jones entered Hillcrest Psychiatric Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. Upon his release, in January 1980, the first thing he did was pick up a six-pack. At the end of the month, after a morning of drinking beer and snorting cocaine, he held a press conference at which he announced his newfound sobriety. “I read the Bible a lot while undergoing treatment,” he said. “Now I can see all the way down the highway.” Seven days later, he managed to record one of the great hits of his career. “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” the song of a man whose pitiful, pining love is resolved only through his own death, became his first number one hit single in more than five years. The record revived his dying career, bringing him three Country Music Association awards and a Grammy. But his resuscitated success did little to stay the course of his madness.
He was hospitalized twice again, and twice again he proclaimed the light. “The world will see a big difference in me,” he told the Associated Press in the spring of 1982. A few weeks later, he was arrested in a drunken rage near Franklin, Tennessee. He declared his sobriety yet again, but a headline in the San Antonio News that summer declared otherwise: ‘DRUNK’ SINGER CYCLES OFF WITH GIRLFRIEND, TEQUILA.
The girlfriend was Nancy Sepulveda, a 34-year-old divorcée from Mansfield, Louisiana. Nancy, who neither drank nor took drugs, found herself lost and confused in the vortex of George’s self-destruction. When she had first met him, in 1981, he had not seemed all that far gone. “He was drinking,” she said, “but he was fun to be around. It wasn’t love at first sight or anything like that. But I saw what a good person he was, deep down, and I couldn’t help caring for him. He needed somebody, something, so bad.” Nancy stuck by him, as none of the others had, neither threatening nor hectoring, condoning nor condemning.
Nancy was surprised to see that quitting cocaine gave George little trouble. The booze, however, was a different matter. His mind and body screamed for it, and when he started drinking heavily in the fall of 1983, it seemed as if his recent sobriety had been but a last deep breath before going under for good. Rampaging through Alabama, suffering from malnutrition and beset by madness, he ended up in a straightjacket at Hillcrest Psychiatric Hospital. Physicians told Nancy that he was close to death and that any further drinking would be his end. Released from Hillcrest in March 1984, Jones, at the age of 52, performed his first stone-cold-sober show. “It was terrible,” Nancy said of that night in Birmingham. “He was like a scared puppy. ‘I can’t do it,’ he said. ‘I can’t go on.’ He was begging and breaking down and dying for a drink. And when he got out there on that stage, and after the first song, he looked out to me in the audience, and he seemed like such a poor, lost, wounded soul that I burst into tears.” But he made it through that show, and he has not taken a drink since then. “All my life it seems like I’ve been running from something,” he told the United Press International in June. “If I knew what it was, maybe I could run in the right direction. But I always seem to end up going the other way.”
Nancy, who is now George’s devoted manager as well as his doting wife and best friend, has almost single-handedly set his career aright. Serving as a catalyst, she has summoned the full support of record company executives for an unusually passive artist, and tending to his affairs, she has helped him clear up his debts and keep his business as well as his life in order. Since signing with MCA Records in December 1990, Jones has received the stature due him as an American master, and by helping to keep the world at bay, Nancy has helped him stay alive amid the shadows of demons that still seem to darken his vision. One gets the impression that, were it not for Nancy, George would not be performing today. He seems world-weary and more distanced from his own fame than ever before. Until recently, George and Nancy lived in a quiet, secluded area of Brentwood, Tennessee. (George’s 42-year-old daughter, Susan, lives nearby with her two children. George is estranged from his two sons and sees Tamala infrequently. When I asked about his children, he fell silent, causing Nancy to revive the air with a laughing cry of “Next!”) In December 1993 the Joneses moved into a new home high on a hill amid the solitude of a hundred acres of prime farmland in nearby Franklin, where George tends his prized herd of Santa Gertrudis cattle. These cows, his girls, seem to elicit a large part of George’s worldly enthusiasm. When he is not on the road, he rises early every morning to tend to them and putter around his spread, building little footbridges for his streams and squirrel feeders for his trees, inspecting his holding pen, stocked ponds, and pear saplings. Like his routine of driving into Nashville every other day to have his hair trimmed and styled by Ray Gregory, his early morning rounds have become one of the rituals of his life.
In Brentwood I found neither many traces of the career nor clues to the man: framed gold and platinum albums on an office wall, biographies of Connie Francis and Robert Graves on a sparse second-floor bookshelf, a bar with no liquor, a closetful of neatly pressed nearly identical blue jeans, a pair of plaster “oriental” sculptures whose presence Nancy blamed on George’s liking. Downstairs, in the basement, traces and clues became more visible. Above the door, a sign read “George’s Doghouse.” Within were boxes of old Nudie Cohn suits (“Looks like something Tammy Wynette would wear,” Nancy said, extracting an especially grotesque toreador-style jacket from a crumpled heap of sequined vestments), shelves of record albums, a coffinlike 24-lamp tanning bed, and scattered memorabilia. On one wall was a painting of a dark-haired girl peering sadly through a window at a display of sweets. George called it “a picture from life’s other side,” after the title of a Hank Williams record. “Back in Texas, when he was trying to quit drinking, George used to sit by that picture all night,” Nancy said. Beside the painting was a plaque bearing the words of The Serenity Prayer about changing what one can and accepting what one cannot.
“She has been a very big help in saving my life and career and just about everything,” George said of Nancy, staring straight ahead through the windshield of the bus into the rainy Alabama night. “They say when you get that low and in that shape, everybody needs some help, and if I hadn’t got that help, I probably wouldn’t be here today.” We crossed the state line into Tennessee. The tape recorder had been running for some time. It may have been the longest interview he had ever given. “Honey, are you awake?” he called out behind him through the darkened bus. “Can I have some ice water?” Beneath the mask of his sunglasses, his face lightened into a grin. “This man’s talking me to death.”
As long as our conversation drifted through the unthreatening realm of musical matters, he spoke comfortably. But when I asked about how it felt, after nine years of temperance, to sing drinking songs, the mention of liquor seemed to disturb him. “I don’t know why we’re even discussing that,” he said defensively. “I just think it was the environment that surrounded you back in those days. If I’d have never played in those places, I probably never would have started drinking.”
“You think so, huh?”
“I would imagine. Being around it. Not so much stage fright, but being around people drunk all the time in the bars and the clubs and the taverns. Sort of being around it, you know, the environment. I’m fairly sure. It’s just being around it all the time and other people doing it. Like the old saying, ‘Birds of a feather flock together.’” The past nine years have been “really like living in a different world,” he added. “All the time you thought you were living, you really weren’t.” He said that he did not miss the other way. “No,” he stated resolutely. “I didn’t want no more of that.”
What was it that had finally brought him around? “Well it was either quit or die. And I surely didn’t want to die, so I made up my mind to quit.” There had been no understanding, it seemed; nothing had been resolved. There had been only the threat of that plain, familiar finality, death coiled and poised. He seemed no freer now than he had seemed long ago. In fact, he seemed more tense. He did not do much song-writing anymore, as if even that means of expression had been choked at the root; and the quality of clench-throated repression that has long been so powerfully effective in his singing now sometimes suggested itself in his everyday speech as well.
The demons had not been vanquished; they were merely subdued, less violent. The man himself would remain an enigma, more likely in the end to burst apart than to be solved. But he was alive, that was the main thing. And he felt physically better these days. “Oh Lord, yeah” he said, then he sighed. It was a sound lost somewhere between resignation and desolation, and in that same tone, staring straight ahead again into the rainy night, he repeated his affirmation, which no longer sounded at all like one of conviction but rather simply of forbearance.