In June 1997, singer-songwriter Billy Yates, whose hard-country vocals were reminiscent of Keith Whitley, released his self-titled debut album, populated with classic-leaning honky-tonk tunes all co-written by the Missouri native. Five years earlier, one of Yates’ most famous tunes became a minor radio hit and a major music-video event for country legend George Jones and a group of Jones’ disciples. “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair” was a rallying cry aimed at country radio, whose narrow playlists were squeezing out older and more traditional country acts in favor of young pop-country hitmakers. With a supporting cast that included Vince Gill, Garth Brooks, Joe Diffie, Alan Jackson, and Clint Black, the song took home a CMA award for Vocal Event — but it barely cracked country’s Top 40.
Another track off Yates’ debut would make its way to George Jones two years later, when the 67-year-old was preparing the release of Cold Hard Truth, his 56th album, which was issued 21 years ago on June 22nd, 1999. But “Choices,” which examines the long-term repercussions of succumbing to temptation — specifically alcohol — seemed tailor-made for Jones, whose battle with the bottle was notorious.
Two months before the LP’s release, Jones nearly lost that battle when, on the afternoon of March 6th, 1999, the Lexus SUV he was driving slammed into a concrete bridge abutment on Highway 96 southeast of Nashville. While Jones was being treated at Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s trauma unit for a ruptured liver, collapsed lung, and internal bleeding, a media frenzy ensued almost immediately with speculation as to the cause. Although a small bottle of vodka had been found in Jones’ vehicle, that information was not made public until five days after the accident. Authorities initially blamed the mishap on Jones’ distracted state while using a cell phone. On the other end of the phone was Jones’ stepdaughter, for whom the singer was trying to play the song that would be his next single: “Choices.”
Jones recovered from the near-fatal wreck, and the occasional glasses of wine that he would enjoy, as well as his longtime smoking habit, would soon become a thing of the past. Cold Hard Truth was released without a significant delay and became a critical favorite. It reached Number Five on the country albums chart, his first to do so in 13 years. “Choices” only reached Number 30, but went on to win Jones a Grammy.
Jones was invited to sing the song on the CMA Awards that year, but refused when producers only allotted him an abbreviated performance slot. Fans heard it anyway, however, thanks to Alan Jackson, who hijacked his own performance of “Pop a Top” to deliver a heartfelt rendition of “Choices” in honor of his hero. Not long after, Jones would refer back to the CMAs when, in a CBS special, he sang “Choices” and prefaced it with a thank-you to Jackson and his own snippet of “Pop a Top.”
A song about Jones’ near-death experience arrived 10 years after the Possum’s accident when Drive-By Truckers issued a 2009 collection of covers and rarities — including member Patterson Hood’s “George Jones Talkin’ Cell Phone Blues.”