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Keeping Up With Jones

A serious Jones: Many people know George Jones as the greatest country singer of all time.

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."

Of course, Jones has much more to be happy about when it comes to his musical achievements. After leaving home at age sixteen to pursue a singing career, in 1954 he signed with Starday Records, where he released a few modestly received singles before hitting paydirt with his first classic, "Why Baby Why." Under manager Pap Dailey, Jones went on to land a number of top-ten hits in that decade, including 1959's "White Lightning," now an evergreen country favorite. Through the '60s, Jones's successes continued with hardcore country hits, duets with Melba Montgomery and the more ballad-style cuts that would become his forte.

In 1969, at the peak of both of their careers, Jones and Wynette married. The pairing made for huge concert draws, and the two quickly became country's first couple. They recorded numerous hits, seemingly personal tales of love, redemption and marital struggle that mirrored their own ups and downs. The marriage eventually crumbled under the weight of Jones's substance abuse, and Wynette filed for divorce in 1973. Jones continued to load the charts with hits (and be forgiven by his fans for his occasional rampages), including such standards as "She Thinks I Still Care," "The Grand Tour" and other heartbreakers. In 1980 he recorded what many consider the finest country song of all time, "He Stopped Loving Her Today." This uber-weeper rightfully ensconced Jones as the ultimate tear-jerking singer, a distinction he's proud of.

"I'm a ballad-lover now," Jones says. "I like to clown around with 'Race Is On' and 'White Lightning' and stuff like that. But when it gets down to something I want to sink my teeth into, I love ballads."

Jones charted more hits during the '80s, largely ballads. Through that decade and the next, his recordings featured material that ranged from stellar to mediocre; much of the weaker material was recorded during heavy drinking bouts, with the knowledge that it had little chance of getting airplay in the New Country boom. Jones did find his way back to commercial radio in 1999, when he released his comeback disc of sorts, Cold Hard Truth. His best recording in ten years or more, it features Jones doing a handful of the lighthearted honky-tonkers for which he's known. The disc sparkles when Jones lays into a handful of aching, pedal-steeled laments. The title track is classic George Jones, a Dickens-ish tale of a man visited by The Truth, who fills him in on his numerous mistakes. There's also "Our Bed of Roses" (a shrub that also appeared on the Jones classic "A Good Year for the Roses") and the drama of "When the Last Curtain Falls." These tunes show Jones in peak fashion, his voice as powerful and elastic as ever, in a simply produced setting with solid material.

The disc's first single, "Choices," led Jones back to most-wanted status, despite being a country-radio programmer's nightmare: It's a simple tune with a Civil War-era fiddle figure and no-happy-ending lyrics dealing with drinking and betrayal. It earned various awards, including nominations for best song from the Academy of Country Music. (The nod was bittersweet: The CMA producers asked Jones to appear on the awards program, with the caveat that he play an abbreviated version of the tune. Jones refused. In protest of the CMA's lack of respect, Alan Jackson stopped the rendition of his current hit short to play a piece of "Choices" in honor of Jones.)

But before "Choices" became Jones's comeback number, the song nearly helped killed him. During Truth's production, "Choices" was picked to be the album's first single. Thrilled with the decision and rough mixes of the song, Jones attempted to play it over his speakerphone for his daughter while he drove to his Tennessee home. He lost control of the car and slammed into a bridge, suffering a collapsed lung, a serrated liver and broken bones in the crash. His heart stopped beating twice on the way to the hospital, where he spent eleven days unconscious on a respirator while doctors predicted his death. The accident and its real-world soundtrack were especially ironic: On the way home that fateful day, Jones had chosen to slip off the wagon.

"I got carried away and decided to get me a little pint," Jones recalls. "I was drinking vodka. I didn't drink but two inches out of the pint, but I hadn't drank in a long time, and it hit me all at once." Despite his brush with death, Jones says his wreck on the highway was an answered prayer for God "to do whatever he had to do, to slap me down, beat me into the ground -- whatever he had to do. To make me see the light so I could straighten my life up once and for all." The accident did just that. "It made a true believer out of me," he says.

 

But while Jones admits his faith in God might have needed some shoring up, his faith in his form of music never has. "I love country music like it's a religion," Jones says. "It's my life and it's made me a living. But it's something that I want more than money for, it's something that I love. And I praise, to this day, Roy Acuff and Lefty and Hank Williams Sr., and I think they don't get the respect today that they did."

Today's one-hit wonders, Jones says, aren't worthy of much respect. "Nowadays," he says, "you see these kids up in the air, puttin' on all this crap, smoking everybody they can and kissin' ass. Trying to get something that they don't even deserve yet.

"Back in my day," he adds, "we found our own damn songs. We hunted for 'em. We were hungry. And we went in the studio, and if they thought we could sing, they signed us up and took it for granted that we knew what was gonna sell." Decisions on songs, he notes, weren't made by "some little ol' long-britches out of New York that never even liked country music to start with."

Jones is equally miffed at one of his friends and allies, George Strait. After receiving the CMA award last year for his cover of Larry Cordle's anti-Nashville tune, "Murder on Music Row," Strait carried out country's equivalent of a Judas kiss. Trophy in hand, as country traditionalists celebrated, Strait claimed he had recorded the tune as a joke.

"No offense to my good friend George Strait," Jones says, "but what he said on that awards show, I had to respond to it. I got on the radio here and I told 'em, 'I've got news for George Strait. Country music to me is no joke.' It burnt me up," Jones adds, before interrupting his screed. "Am I talking too much?" he asks. "I get revved up when I talk about country music."

On the heels of Truth's success, Jones is revving up for another round in his fight against pseudo-country. He's just finished recording a new disc, tentatively titled Stone Cold Country, that will appear on a new label, Bandit/BNA. The label is run by Evelyn Shriver and Susan Nadler, former Asylum heads and the brains behind Cold Hard Truth. Jones is a partner in the label. The new platter was produced by Emory Gordy Jr.; its first single is scheduled for a July release, and the full-length disc will appear in stores in September.

With his career enjoying some newfound momentum, Jones is thrilled. He's especially happy about his current run of sobriety, credit for which he gives to Nancy, his wife of eighteen years. Not that he's completely distancing himself from his past: For a photo accompanying a recent interview with Playboy, Jones appeared in the seat of his riding lawnmower, making light of his most famous drunk-driving episode.

"To live it down, you've got to try to laugh a little bit," Jones says. "It bothers me a lot when I think of things I've done. But there's nothing you can do about it anymore. I've got license tags on all my vehicles that say 'No Show.' Everywhere I go, there's still somebody that says, 'Hey, No Show.' It don't make me mad. I say, 'Yeah, but I'm showing today, ain't I?' I think everybody is getting to know the real George lately."

Better still, more fans are getting to know his music, including a younger breed of hardcores. "I've even had rock-and-roll-lookin' kids come to my shows, with these pierced ears and noses, they got these Mohawk hairdos," Jones says. "They love traditional country music."

That same affection, Jones says, is what's made him country's most revered singer.

"First of all," he says, "I've got the song there that I'm really sold on. And when I start singing, I'm like I'm in another world. I'm actually living every moment of that song. I feel like I am that person that the story is about. And I think that's the only way that you can really put your heart and soul into it fully. You've got to live it while you're singing it. And the only way that I think you can really do that is to love -- love -- what you're doing. Not for the almighty dollar alone. You've got to love country music."


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