George Jones: Country singer whose music was informed by his tumultuous life of excess

When Wynette poured away all the drink and hid the car keys, he drove to a bar on the lawnmower

George Jones was one of the greatest country singers, but despite the fact that he has had more records in the US country charts than anybody else, he was largely unknown outside that genre. He ignored trends; he never wanted to go pop; and his albums were shoddily packaged with minimum playing time. Nobody tried to widen his appeal, least of all Jones himself, who was even paranoid about appearing in New York and once ruined an industry showcase by reworking his country hits as though he were Donald Duck. At his best, Jones was a marvellous narrative singer, able to extract every ounce of meaning from a mournful lyric. He said it was easy because he just thought back to some event in his own colourful life.

George Jones was born with a broken arm in Saratoga, Texas in 1931, the youngest of eight children. His father was a timber company truck driver and after moving to Beaumont, Texas, a pipe fitter in a shipyard. He was a heavy drinker and violent, in contrast to Clare, who played piano for a fundamentalist church. Jones was given a guitar when he was nine and was soon playing on the streets for tips.

He left home at 15 and found work on a radio station then joined the duo, Eddie and Pearl, playing honky tonks for $17 a week. He was nicknamed Possum for his close-set eyes and upturned nose. At 17 he married Dorothy Bonvillion but, wary of responsibilities, he left before the birth of their daughter. Expecting to be jailed for lack of child support, he joined the US marines. On leaving the forces in 1953 he became a house painter.

Jones was spotted by Pappy Daily, who became his manager. Recorded in Daily’s living room with egg cartons for sounding boards, he recorded his first single, “No Money In This Deal”, for Starday in 1954. The following year he had his first country hit, “Why Baby Why”, which made the pop charts for Pat Boone. After touring with Elvis Presley in 1956 he recorded the rockabilly “Rock It!” as Thumper Jones.

Moving to Mercury, Jones had his first US No 1 with “White Lightning” (1959); he needed 83 takes to record this novelty drinking song because he was so drunk. Although sounding dated, Jones made some good records, none more playful than “Who Shot Sam” (1959) or more moving than his tale of unrequited love, “Tender Years” (1961). Of his own songs, “Seasons Of My Heart” was recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, while “The Window Up Above” was on the country charts for nine months.

In 1962 Jones moved to United Artists’ subsidiary Musicor and recorded a classic single “She Thinks I Still Care”. Many hits followed including “We Must Have Been Out Of Our Minds” (1963) with Melba Montgomery, “You Comb Her Hair” (1963) and “The Race Is On” (1964). Averaging five albums a year, including some with Gene Pitney, he may have looked ridiculous in his crew-cut and embroidered suit but he was to grow a magnificent head of hair, the reason he was never seen with a cowboy hat.

His marriage to Shirley Corley in 1954 produced two sons, but Jones was never happy with family life and they divorced. Because of his fondness for alcohol and cocaine he became known as “No Show Jones” but he impressed an up-and-coming country singer, Tammy Wynette, and they were married in 1969. Every night Wynette would dedicate “Stand By Your Man” to her new husband.

The relationship was fraught from the start as Wynette tried to curb Jones’ excesses. Often he would beat her and she would apply make-up to her bruises before going on stage. Once she poured away all the alcohol in their house and hid the car keys, hoping that he would sleep it off. Instead, Jones started the electric lawnmower and drove to the nearest bar. Admitted to hospital in 1970, he weighed seven stone; he owed huge amounts of tax, was to be declared bankrupt and was arrested for firing a gun at a friend.

What is extraordinary is that, whether recording singly or together, Jones and Wynette derived satisfaction by performing songs which mirrored their predicament. They put their wedding vows to music in “The Ceremony” (1972) and had No 1 duets with “Golden Ring”, “You And Me” and “Near You” (all 1976), by which time they had divorced. Jones’ chilling but self-pitying songs of a marriage going wrong included “Good Year For The Roses” (1970), later a UK hit for Elvis Costello, and “The Grand Tour” (1974). The title of Jones’ first post-divorce albums said it all, The Battle and Alone Again, both 1976. Their daughter, Georgette, is now a recording artist in her own right.

Working with Wynette’s producer, Billy Sherrill, Jones made the album Bartender’s Blues (1979), the title song written by James Taylor and featuring his backing vocals. The album contained the utterly bizarre “Leaving Love All Over The Place”, about an S&M couple who kill each other. Jones was in such bad shape when he was to record My Very Special Friends (1979) that his duet partners, including Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello, recorded their parts first.

In 1980 Jones was given the mawkish country song “He Stopped Loving Her Today”, written by Curly Putnam and Bobby Braddock. He gave it an intensely emotional performance but it worked magnificently and led to the album I Am What I Am, which sold half a million copies. He recorded A Taste Of Yesterday’s Wine (1982) with Merle Haggard and joined Ray Charles for “We Didn’t See A Thing”. (1984).

In 1983 Jones married Nancy Ford Sepulvado, who became his manager. She sorted out his finances and bought property and a cattle farm. She encouraged his rehabilitation but it left him with a reduced lung capacity. Wary that he might not be around for much longer he recorded “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” (1985) with some modern country stars, “I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair” (1992) and the confessional Too Wild Too Long (1987).

By now, Jones was highly influential and widely copied. He was elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1992 but he had triple-bypass surgery in 1994. In 1999 he won a Grammy for Choices, but after being sober for 13 years he drove his car into a bridge while drunk, not wearing a seatbelt and speaking to his stepdaughter on a cellphone. He recovered and continued touring. During 2013 Jones was making his final concert appearances which would have ended in November with a star-studded show in Nashville. He died of respiratory failure.

George Glenn Jones, singer, songwriter and guitarist: born Saratoga, Texas 12 September 1931; married 1949 Dorothy Bonvillion (divorced 1951; one daughter), 1954 Shirley Ann Conley (divorced 1968; two sons), 1969 Tammy Wynette (divorced 1975; died 1998; one daughter), 1983 Nancy Sepulvado; died Nashville 26 April 2013.

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