Friday, April 8, 2016


Just don’t call him Possum…
By Don Stradley

My George Jones fantasy: He and Tammy Wynette are in their primes right now, and are given their own reality show, produced by Ryan Seacrest and Eliot Goldberg, the same creeps who produced Keeping Up With The Kardashians. The first episode has George and Tammy arguing over the music to be used for their doorbell: George wants ‘White Lightning’; Tammy wants ‘Stand By Your Man.’ This is crewcut George, the one who strutted like a bantam rooster in his sparkly Nudie suits. Tammy’s in her white go-go boots phase, hotter than a Jimmy Dean sausage. George gets tired of arguing and disappears for several days. He returns home drunk, and I mean George Jones drunk. He sees the camera crew at the house, and forgets that he’s part of a reality show. Thinking these guys are part of a conspiracy, he grabs his favorite pistol, a Colt .45 with pearl grips given to him by Waylon Jennings, and commences to fire. Seacrest and Goldberg are killed. George drives away from the carnage humming ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today.’ Now, that’s a program I’d get behind.

According to Rich Kienzle’s The Grand Tour: The Life and Music of George Jones, my reveries aren’t entirely off base. Jones, who died in 2013 at 81, rivaled The Who when it came to trashing a hotel room, and his countless public embarrassments would’ve impressed Charlie Sheen. Perhaps the culmination was  Jones’ infamous 1982 cocaine bust, which made National Enquirer type headlines and inspired columnist Orley Hood to peg the singer as “a moral pauper who is perpetually ashamed of himself.” The gears of the story were classic enough:  a drunk and abusive daddy and a God-fearing mama gave birth to a scrappy kid who left Saratoga, Texas for Nashville and became the master of maudlin country ballads. His songs, a veritable “punch list of misery,” struck a chord with listeners and became hits on southern radio stations and jukeboxes. At one point he was recording five albums per year. He also had a taste for guns and alcohol. Bad luck followed him, too. An unfortunate woman left the Jones tour bus one fateful night and ended up strangled by a drifter. If Jones had a family crest, it’d be a bullet hole in a rusted bumper. 

It’s not quite the tale of a typical C&W rowdy, because Jones wasn’t a particularly rebellious character. He certainly wasn’t part of the 1970s ‘outlaw country’ trend, and unlike Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, Jones didn’t court listeners outside of the country crowd (save for a pair of awkward duets with Gene Pitney back in the ‘60s.). He was in the Hank Williams tradition, so much so that he sometimes drove around with a cardboard cutout of Hank in the passenger seat. Of course, those were the dark days, a time when one friend called Jones “so slobbering drunk that he didn’t know if he was Roy Acuff or Jesus Christ.” But nothing in Kienzle’s book suggests Jones drank because it was party time. Jones, it seems, was trying to do himself in. “I’ve been running from something all my life,” Jones once said in a rare moment of reflection. “But I can’t figure out what.” One acquaintance simply described Jones as “ill-prepared for fame.”

A major country star such as Jones deserves a bio, and Kienzle’s will do nicely. The early years are especially interesting, as  Jones fights his way into the music business with the tenacity of an alley cat, doing gigs on borrowed guitars and trying to find his real voice,  while the final chapters, as sickly old George watches his beloved genre become overrun by idiots who couldn’t make it in a Styx cover band, are suitably moving. The book sags in the middle, though, with its logjam of recording dates, chart placements, and battles with record labels. Kienzle is a veteran country music writer and historian, but his love of facts and dates creates a bottleneck that prevents the real story from being told. By the 20th time Kienzle shares the history of some obscure piano player, you’re ready to cry uncle. And despite becoming familiar with his lengthy rap sheet, I’m still not sure I know much about Jones. From what I can tell, he was a human cypher, and the despair of broken hearted people everywhere seemed to blow through him on the winds of country music. Maybe that’s all we need to know. Better to stay out of George Jones’ head. Few could enter that cave of torment and nameless hurts, and come out alive.


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