George Jones is the king of country singers and a highly acclaimed songwriter. His straightforward aversion to trends and his dark but romantic persona have served him well through nearly five decades of recordings, a highly publicized marriage to and divorce from singer Tammy Wynette, and bouts with addictions and poor health. Though he dominated country radio from the late '50s into the '80s, his more recent recordings have received little airplay. He remains, however, the preeminent country stylist and is so acknowledged by critics and young country stars alike.
Jones grew up the eighth child in a poor Texas family, his father an alcoholic laborer, his mother a church pianist. He came to music early, singing at 9, playing guitar at 11, and writing his first song at 12. Jones ran away from home at age 14; in 1947 he was hired by the duo Eddie and Pearl. A regular radio spot gave Jones his first glimmer of fame and also got him his first endearing nickname, Possum, so dubbed by a disc jockey for Jones' close-set eyes and turned-up nose. By 18 Jones already had a wife, a child, and a broken marriage behind him.
After three years in the Marine Corps, Jones returned to Texas to start his musical career in earnest. He again gained attention while singing on the radio. A Houston producer, H. W. "Pappy" Daily, signed Jones to the Starday label; there, Jones had his first C&W hits, including "Why Baby Why" (Number Four, 1955), "You Gotta Be My Baby" (Number Seven, 1956), and "Just One More" (Number Three, 1956). After Starday merged with the national label Mercury in 1957, Jones began cutting the classic singles that made him famous; among them, 1959's "White Lightning," Jones' first C&W Number One and his only pop hit (Number 73). Other hits from this period include "Who Shot Sam" (Number Seven, 1959), "The Window Up Above" (Number Two, 1960), and "Tender Years" (Number One, 1961).
Jones' long string of country hits includes "She Thinks I Still Care" (Number One, 1962), "You Comb Her Hair" (Number Five, 1963), "The Race Is On" (Number Three, 1964), "We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds" (a duet with Melba Montgomery) (Number Three, 1963), "Walk Through This World With Me" (Number One, 1967), "A Good Year for the Roses" (Number Two, 1970), "The Grand Tour" (Number One, 1974), "He Stopped Loving Her Today" (Number One, 1980), and "Yesterday's Wine" (with Merle Haggard) (Number One, 1982). In addition to these and other major sellers were dozens of Top 20 hits. In all, Jones has found himself on the C&W chart —as a solo artist or in duet settings —over 150 times.
But Jones' phenomenal success as an artist ran neck and neck with his increasingly erratic behavior. Jones' excessive drinking, and later drug abuse, caused him to consistently miss shows (giving him the new nickname, No Show Jones), shirk off recording sessions, and behave violently toward wives and friends. In 1969 Jones married country superstar Tammy Wynette. Though their four-year marriage was stormy (Jones was accused of beating her and threatening her with a rifle), the two had chart success together during and after the marriage: "We're Gonna Hold On" (Number One, 1973), "Golden Ring" (Number One, 1976), "Near You" (Number One, 1976), and "Two Story House" (Number Two, 1980).
Jones turned over a new leaf in his recording career and personal life during the 1980s. Eschewing the overproduced sound that had been cluttering his work, Jones returned to his honky-tonk roots. He sought help for substance abuse, amended his no-show ways, and established a stable fourth marriage. His 1992 single "I Don't Need Your Rockin' Chair" (Number 34 C&W) featured 10 contemporary country hitmakers, including Garth Brooks, Clint Black, Alan Jackson, and Travis Tritt. In 1994 Jones recorded The Bradley Barn Sessions, a series of duets with performers including Trisha Yearwood, Keith Richards, and Mark Knopfler. That fall, Jones underwent triple bypass surgery; upon recovery, he returned to the studio to record One, a reunion album with Wynette that the pair supported with a short tour. The following year saw the release of his notoriously self-deprecating, tell-all autobiography, I Lived to Tell It All. An album of the same name followed later that year, peaking at Number 26 on the country chart. In 1998 he began hosting his own variety show on TNN, The George Jones Show, which ran for two years.
Jones recorded one more album for MCA in 1998 but asked to be released from the label out of frustration from lack of radio airplay. He was in the finishing stages of recording his debut for Asylum the following year when he drove his sport-utility vehicle into a concrete bridge, landing him in the hospital with damaged lungs and liver. He later pleaded guilty to DWI — his first slip off the wagon in more than a dozen years. He survived the ordeal with a new lease on life, a rush of renewed media interest, and his highest-charting album of the decade, Cold Hard Truth (Number Five C&W), which featured the single "Choices" (Number 24 C&W). Live With the Possum followed later the same year.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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