Obituary: George Jones

Peerless and hard-living country music legend

George Jones was nicknamed No-Show Jones for the concerts he missed during drinking and drug binges. Photograph: AP Photo/John Russell

George Jones was nicknamed No-Show Jones for the concerts he missed during drinking and drug binges. Photograph: AP Photo/John Russell

Sat, May 4, 2013, 06:00

George Jones, who has died in Nashville aged 81, was the definitive country singer of the past 50 years, whose songs about heartbreak and hard drinking echoed his own life. Jones was nicknamed Possum for his close-set eyes and pointed nose and later No-Show Jones for the concerts he missed during drinking and drug binges.

In his most memorable songs, all the pleasures of a down-home Saturday night could not free him from private pain. He was a presence on the country charts from the 1950s into the 21st century and as early as the 1960s he was praised by listeners and fellow musicians as the greatest living country singer. Jones was never a crossover act; while country fans revered him, pop and rock radio stations ignored him.

George Glenn Jones was born with a broken arm in Saratoga, Texas, an oil-field town, to Clare and George Washington Jones. His father, a truck driver and pipe fitter, bought George his first guitar when he was 9, and with help from a Sunday school teacher he taught himself to play melodies and chords. As a teenager he sang on the streets, in Pentecostal revival services and in the honky-tonks in the Gulf Coast port of Beaumont. Jones married Dorothy Bonvillion when he was 17 but divorced her before the birth of their daughter. He served in the Marines from 1950 to 1953 and then signed to Starday Records, whose co-owner Pappy Daily became Jones’ producer and manager.

Second wife
Jones’ first single, No Money in This Deal , was released in 1954, the year he married his second wife, Shirley Corley. They had two sons before they divorced in 1968.

He had already become a drinker. White Lightning , a No 1 country hit in 1959, required 83 takes because Jones was drinking through the session. On the road, playing one-night stands, he tore up hotel rooms and got into brawls. He also began missing shows because he was too drunk to perform.

At one point his wife hid the keys to all his cars, so he drove his lawn mower into Beaumont to a liquor store. They were divorced not long afterward. He had met a rising country singer, Tammy Wynette, in 1966 and they fell in love while on tour.

She was married at the time to Don Chapel, a songwriter whose material had appeared on both of their albums. She took her three children and left with Jones. They were married in 1969.

“Mr and Mrs Country Music” was painted on their tour bus, but the marriage failed, unable to withstand quarrels and Jones’ drinking and amphetamine use. After one fight, he was put into a straitjacket and hospitalised for 10 days. The couple divorced in 1975; the next year Jones released two albums, titled The Battle and Alone Again .

Reunite to tour
Duets by Jones and Wynette continued to be released until 1980, the year they rejoined to make a new album, Together Again , which included the hit Two Story House . They would reunite to tour and record again in the mid-1990s.

Jones grew increasingly erratic after the divorce, drinking heavily, using cocaine and brandishing a gun. His nickname No-Show Jones gained national circulation as he missed more engagements than he kept. In December 1979 he was committed for 30 days to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre. After his release, he went back to cocaine and whiskey.

In 1983 he married Nancy Sepulvedo, who straightened out his affairs and then Jones himself. In 1996 he released an album to coincide with his autobiography, giving it the same title, I Lived to Tell It All .

Then, on March 6th, 1999, he was critically injured when his car hit the side of a bridge while he was changing a cassette. A half-empty bottle of vodka was found in the car; Jones was sentenced to undergo treatment.

In his last years, Jones found himself upholding a traditional sound that had largely disappeared from commercial country radio. “They just shut us off all together at one time,” he said in a 2012 conversation with the photographer Alan Mercer.

“It’s not the right way to do these things. You just don’t take something as big as what we had and throw it away without regrets. They don’t care about you as a person. They don’t even know who I am in downtown Nashville.”