Before you lose count in George Jones’ high-octane, fiercely juicy autobiography, I Lived to Tell It All, the man blessed with the best set of lungs this side of the cosmos has stylishly procreated, broken a variety of bones, drunk a holding pond of booze, destroyed a few fancy hotel rooms, been kidnapped by gangsters, dissed by Barbara Mandrell, kicked out of rehab, fingered for murder, rendered homeless, diagnosed as near retarded, and this, mind you, is before you give up on the count. Yes, my friend, it’s pure hell being a legend, but George Jones has always worn the boots pretty well. Hence the new album (also called I Lived to Tell It All), and the collected (read: sober) mind-set that fits the 65-year-old balladeer all so swell.
Was it strange that Rolling Stone wanted to do an article on you?
A little bit, but it’s the only way you can keep up with this generation, the way music is today. Most of the old-timers have just about hung it up, but music is like a religion to me. I love it too much to give up.
Reading your book, I’m surprised you’re alive at all. Statistically, Mr. Jones, you should be dead. Instead, you’re a legend. It’s funny how things work out.
Yeah, I guess it is. We’re all put here for a reason. Hank Williams Sr. had a five-year recording span where it seemed like everything he put out was a hit. He sells more today than he did when he was alive.
Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and the like led similar lives, but none lived to tell their stories.
Well, the entertainment business is one big party. If you do drink and associate with the people who do, eventually you’re going to be smoking pot and taking pills. That’s what entertainment is all about.
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Why did you hate yourself so much?
I don’t know. It’s just that state of mind that drugs and liquor put you in.
After your mama died, someone found a note she’d left in the family Bible. She wrote that she’d “made a failure” in you but that she hoped to meet you in heaven. It hurt you to read that, didn’t it?
Well, it did. It brought tears to my eyes. You know, them mothers are something else, to start with. You feel ashamed when you read something like that and haven’t been living the way that you should.
It’s just so weird, because everyone else thought you had it made, and your mom just saw you as a failure.
Ah, um, OK. . . . Do you hate your nickname “No Show Jones”?
No, but I guess that’s what bothers me most now. I can close my eyes and see little ol’ country people walking with their kids down the old roads – some didn’t have good enough cars to get them there. And they saved money probably for two months to take everybody, and I was off somewhere drunk and didn’t show up.
A good song is hard to find these days in country music. Why is that so?
Well, you know, there’s so many new artists that they’re signing every day, every day, every day. It’s bugging radio to death, too. It’s too much product. To tell you the truth, they’re killing it.
Why do you like Keith Richards so much?
I’ll be honest with you: I love Keith Richards more than anything as a person. He’s a character – just fun to be around.
Did you like Gram Parsons?
Gram Parsons! He’s dead.
Yeah, I remember the name.
Who has the best hair in Nashville: Reba McEntire or Marty Stuart?
Oh, Marty! He’s a cute little devil. You’d have to give him that.
You’ve had a few ex-wives.
Most of them were housewives. I had some good housekeepers [laughs].
Will you and Tammy Wynette record together again?
Well, I’ll be honest with ya, I don’t believe we will.
You and Johnny Cash are about the coolest people in the universe. Any pointers for us geeks?
We’re just down-to-earth country boys, and we appreciate what good things have happened to us, but the money and things don’t change us. We’d love to meet you uptown there and have a bowl of chili with you in a minute.
Cool. Hey, when’s the last time you ate a can of vienna sausages?
I don’t think I’ve had a can since I was operated on [Jones had triple-bypass surgery two years ago]. I don’t watch my diet like I should. At my age, you know, breakfast is very important. Breakfast is not a very important meal to y’all real young people.
Breakfast is OK. You know, you could sing the back of a cereal box and make people cry. What’s your secret?
Lord, I don’t know. It would be: No matter how bad of a boy I was, I was never a phony. I never kissed anyone’s butt to try to get anything done.
Yeah, but you did grab Porter Wagoner’s dick at the Grand Ole Opry and almost put him out of commission.
Well, I don’t remember that to this day, but he told me about it.
How do you relax?
Buddy, my relaxation is when I get back to my farm here in Tennessee. I’m into miniature horses, and we take them to shows. We’re just having a ball! They’re like pets: follow you around just like your puppy dog!
Say they make a movie out of this book. Who could play you? Brad Pitt?
I tell you a boy I like: the Walton boy. I would like to have him, really.
No! John Boy!?! Richard Thomas?
Yeah. He’s good.
You’ve raised a lot of hell, Mr. Jones. Do you think I’ll see you in heaven?
I would like to hope so, because I’ve changed my way of life. I do believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and do pray often, even though I’m not a saint. Hopefully, we all don’t have to be a saint to get into heaven.
This story is from the November 28th, 1996 issue of Rolling Stone.