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George Jones knows a few things about country music. In a six-decade career that's been astoundingly productive -- especially considering Jones's staggering bouts with alcohol and drug addictions -- he's placed more songs on the charts (158) than any performer in any genre. He's been called "the greatest country singer of all time" many times; it's a title that has stuck through the highs and the very low personal lows of his career -- and for good reason: When George Jones wraps his hickory-smoked timbres around a weepy melody, it's the sound of hurt personified. It's the sound of America singing through its tears.
Today, as Jones heads toward his seventieth birthday, his voice hasn't lost any of its emotional wallop, as evidenced by his latest recording, The Cold Hard Truth. The album features some of the finest, most unflinchingly honest ballads Jones has produced in the past ten years; it's also helped him regain his hitmaker status. Jones is not enjoying the success quietly, however: He's using his rebirth as a call to arms in the battle against Nashville's label heads and bean counters.
"They've tried to choke this crap down people's throats," says Jones, in a wood-chips-and-gravel voice much rougher than his country croon. "And I don't mean any offense to the artists. I love 'em all. But their style is not country. Alan Jackson and Patty Loveless are about the only two I know of, and George Strait, that are keeping it traditional. The rest of them have no business whatsoever being called 'country' music. And if I have to say it, I'll say it, because it's true. I love Faith Hill and Shania Twain to death, and they're fine in their field. But they're in another field."
More astounding to Jones than the perpetuation of pop stars as country icons is the fact that the genre has turned its back on the very themes that define its essence -- ones that he has helped perfect over the years. "I can't understand the artists today," he says. "They quit recording cheating and drinking songs, and people still do both. You've still got these people that go in these beer joints, and they still drink and they still party, and women do the same thing, and there's more cheatin' and drinkin' going on, or just as much, as there ever was."
But instead of playing songs dealing with such adult themes, he notes, the airwaves are filled with endless stories of love and faithfulness.
"Now, it's all this 'I love you' thing," Jones says with disgust. "It's like people don't do nothing but make love anymore. Let's face reality: People still want the cheating and drinking songs. I tell my audience: As long as I'm in the business, you're gonna hear one every now and then, even though I don't drink and do all that crap anymore. I've learned my lesson; I've seen the light."
Indeed, Jones's dark past includes enough material for several seasons of TV celebrity exposés. The singer spent years intoxicated and admits to recording albums and doing shows completely sloshed. For years, he was often too bombed to perform and made a habit of canceling concerts at the last minute, moves that started riots on more than a few occasions. The practice earned Jones a second nickname, "No Show Jones," to go with his previous alias, "The Possum." His struggles with alcohol and cocaine led him to violence and marital mayhem, much of it played out in the public eye. Jones's drunk-driving sprees made national news; particularly well publicized was one bender during which he drove his riding lawnmower eight miles to a local liquor store after his wife hid the keys to the family cars.
Jones revealed the sordid details of his life -- including his stormy, short-lived marriage to singing and musical partner Tammy Wynette -- in the 1997 autobiography I Lived to Tell It All, which he wrote with Tom Carter. The book is a jarringly honest confessional that made the New York Times bestseller list, in part for its startling candor. Jones willingly admits to behaviors that could make a gangsta rapper seem tame and antics that would get a less-loved artist banned from the airwaves today. How bad did Jones get? He disappeared from his family for days on end, pulled guns on strangers and reveled in destroying Cadillacs, hotel rooms, his personal relationships and his health. In one section of his book, Jones tells of confronting friend and legend Porter Wagoner, whom Jones suspected of having an affair with Wynette. In an addled, paranoid fit of rage, Jones approached Wagoner in a backstage restroom, grabbed him by the penis (midstream) and twisted it with a vengeance while demanding to see "what Tammy was so proud of."
Today, Jones says, such moments haunt him.
"I did so damn many things the opposite way that I should've," Jones admits. In recent years he's spent much time "thinking about all the bad things I did to hurt people. And it wasn't meant to be, but drinking has caused it. But you know," he says, "all those things hurt when I think about it. I try not to think about it too much. Just enough every now and then to keep my butt straight."