Many attempts have been made to capture in words the immense, singular vocal gifts that have made George Glenn Jones one of the most influential singers in country music history. He is the undisputed successor of earlier primitive geniuses such as Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell - singers who, in turn, so heavily influenced him in his formative years.
Jones launched his recording career in East Texas in the early 1950s, and as of the start of the twenty-first century he was still going strong. Yet it is more than sheer longevity, or the almost religious purity of his hard-core country instincts, that has made him such a towering, influential figure. In many ways Jones is one of country music’s last vital links to its own rural past - a relic from a long-gone time and place before cable TV and FM rock radio and shopping malls, an era when life still revolved around the Primitive Baptist Church, the honky-tonk down the road, and Saturday nights listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. The fact that Jones himself has changed little over the years, and at times seems to be genuinely bewildered by the immensity of his own talent and the acclaim it has brought him, have merely enhanced his credibility.
Like Hank Williams before him, Jones has emerged - quite unintentionally - as an archetype of an era that most likely will never come around again. He is a singer who has earned his stature the hard way: by living his songs. His humble origins, his painful divorces, his legendary drinking and drugging, and his myriad financial, legal, and emotional problems have, over the years, merely confirmed his sincerity and enhanced his mystique, earning him a cachet that, in country music circles, approaches canonization.
Born in a log cabin in an oil patch settlement in a remote East Texas region known as the Big Thicket, Jones found early refuge in music from the rages of an alcoholic father. As a child, George sang for tips in the streets of Beaumont, Texas, where, at an early age, he moved with his parents into a government-subsidized housing project. Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, and Lefty Frizzell (whom he most resembles as a vocalist) comprised Jones’s youthful triumvirate of influences.
In the late 1940s Jones made his radio debut singing with a friend on radio KTXJ in Jasper, Texas. A year or so later he began backing husband-and-wife team Eddie & Pearl. Performing with them on Beaumont’s KRIC, he met for the one and only time his idol Hank Williams, who dropped by to sing a song and promote a local show date.
In 1950 Jones was married for the first of four times. But he and Dorothy Bonvillion, his first wife, divorced slightly more than a year later. In her petition Bonvillion cited her ex-husband’s “violent temper” and asserted he was “addicted to the drinking of alcoholic beverages.” These twin motifs would resurface again and again to wreak havoc in Jones’s later life. After several incarcerations for nonpayment of support (he and Dorothy had a daughter in the course of their brief marriage) Jones sought refuge in the Marine Corps.
In January 1954, back in Houston, Texas, and back in civilian clothes, Jones cut his first record, a prophetically titled original called “No Money in This Deal.” The session took place in the crude home studio of Jack Starnes, one of the original owners of Starday, a regional label that released Jones’s earliest records. Starnes’s partner, local jukebox operator Harold W. “Pappy” Daily, assumed the roles of Jones’s producer and manager, roles he would continue to play until 1970.
“Why, Baby, Why,” Jones’s first Top Five hit, which he co-wrote, was released on Starday in 1955. When he moved on to Mercury Records and began recording in Nashville shortly thereafter, the hits kept coming: “Color of the Blues,” “White Lightning” (his first #1, 1959), “Who Shot Sam,” “The Window Up Above” (also written by Jones), and “Tender Years” are some of early classic titles from Jones’s vast recorded catalogue.
In 1954 Jones married his second wife, Shirley Ann Corley, after a two-week courtship. They divorced in 1968.
In the 1960s Jones recorded for the United Artists and Musicor labels and the hits continued, though his style had begun to mellow and season somewhat from the jittery honky-tonk of “Why, Baby, Why” and the handful of rockabilly sides that Jones reluctantly cut in 1956, under the pseudonym Thumper Jones. High points of this era were hits such as “She Thinks I Still Care,” “The Race Is On,” “Love Bug,” “Walk Through This World with Me,” and “A Good Year for the Roses.”
At about the turn of the decade, two significant things happened to Jones. In 1969 he married singer Tammy Wynette, who had already become a star in her own right. Over the next decade (even long after they divorced in 1975) they would record classic duet hits such as “The Ceremony,” “We’re Gonna Hold On,” “Golden Ring,” “Near You,” and “Two Story House.”
In 1971 Jones signed with Epic Records and began working with producer Billy Sherrill, who was already producing Wynette and who produced most of the aforementioned Jones and Wynette duets. Sherrill would also, in the next decade or so, coax out of the temperamental, often hard-drinking singer some of his all-time best vocal performances. “A Picture of Me Without You,” “The Grand Tour,” “The Door,” and “Bartender’s Blues” are just a few commercial and aesthetic high points of the Jones-Sherrill collaboration.
The 1970s and early 1980s were, in the wake of his divorce from Tammy Wynette, dark times for Jones. Due to alcohol and cocaine addiction, he was arrested and hospitalized numerous times. He missed dozens of performances (thus earning the nickname No Show Jones) and was ensnared in a myriad of legal and financial problems. His health grew precarious, and his weight plummeted to ninety-seven pounds.
Yet in the midst of this adversity he recorded “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a mournful ballad that hit #1 in 1980, became his first million seller, won a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance, and contributed toward his winning of the CMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year awards in 1980 and 1981.
In 1983 Jones married his fourth wife, Nancy Sepulvado, and it marked the beginning of his gradual rehabilitation. In 1990 he signed with MCA and went on to record a string of critically lauded recordings on that label. Jones was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992. Ironically, the clean and sober George Jones of the late eighties and early nineties, though still recording credible music, was all but banished from the country charts. Yet he has emerged as one of country music’s most revered and cherished figures. Jones’s autobiography, I Lived to Tell It All (Villard Books, 1996), was a hardcover best-seller.
Though heard infrequently on radio, Jones has continued to win industry awards. His recording of “You Don’t Seem to Miss Me” with Patty Loveless was named the CMA’s Vocal Event of the Year in 1998, and he received the same award in 2001 for a collaboration with Brad Paisley, Buck Owens, and Bill Anderson. In 1999 Jones survived a near-fatal car crash and later released the album Cold, Hard Truth on Asylum. “Choices,” a single from the album, received a Grammy for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. Chastened by his accident, Jones gave up alcohol and cigarettes and turned to sacred music for the 2003 double CD The Gospel Collection: George Jones Sings the Greatest Stories Ever Told on BNA/Bandit.