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George Jones, country superstar, has died at 81

By Hillel Italie

Associated Press

Published: Friday, April 26 2013 10:27 a.m. MDT

Jones was a purist who lamented the transformation of country music from the family feeling of the 1950s to the hit factory of the early 21st century. He was so caught up in country, old country, that when a record company executive suggested he record with James Taylor, Jones insisted he had never heard of the million selling singer-songwriter. He was equally unimpressed when told that Neil Young had come to visit backstage and declined to see him, saying he didn't know who he was. He did listen to the Rolling Stones, only because of the guitar playing of Keith Richards, a country fan who would eventually record with Jones.

Asked about what he thought about Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift and other young stars, Jones said they were good but they weren't making traditional country music.

"What they need to do really, I think, is find their own title," he said.

In 1991, country star Alan Jackson dedicated his hit song "Don't Rock the Jukebox" to Jones, asking in the song that country music remain faithful to the Jones style instead of drifting toward rock 'n' roll.

Jones was born Sept. 12, 1931, in a log house near the east Texas town of Saratoga, the youngest of eight children. He sang in church and at age 11 began performing for tips on the streets of Beaumont, Texas. His first outing was such a success that listeners tossed him coins, placed a cup by his side and filled it with money. Jones estimated he made more than $24 for his two-hour performance, enough to feed his family for a week, but he used up the cash at a local arcade.

"That was my first time to earn money for singing and my first time to blow it afterward," he recalled in "I Lived to Tell it All," a painfully self-critical memoir published in 1996. "It started what almost became a lifetime trend."

The family lived in a government-subsidized housing project, and his father, a laborer, was an alcoholic who would rouse the children from bed in the middle of the night to sing for him. His father also noted that young George liked music and bought him a Gene Autry guitar, with a horse and lariat on the front, that Jones practiced on obsessively.

He got his start on radio with husband and wife team Eddie & Pearl in the late 1940s. Hank Williams once dropped by the studio to promote a new record, and Jones was invited to back him on guitar. When it came time to play, he froze.

"Hank had 'Wedding Bells' out at the time," Jones recalled in a 2003 Associated Press interview. "He started singing it, and I never hit the first note the whole song. I just stared."

After the first of his four marriages failed, he enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1951 and served three years. He cut his first record when he got out, an original fittingly called "No Money in This Deal."

He had his first hit with "Why Baby Why" in 1955, and by the early '60s Jones was one of country music's top stars.

"I sing top songs that fit the hardworking, everyday loving person. That's what country music is about," Jones said in a 1991 AP interview. "My fans and real true country music fans know I'm not a phony. I just sing it the way it is and put feeling in it if I can and try to live the song."

Jones was married to Wynette, his third wife, from 1969 to 1975. (Wynette died in 1998.) Their relationship played out in Nashville like a country song, with hard drinking, fights and reconciliations. Jones' weary knowledge of domestic warfare was immortalized in such classics as "The Battle," set to the martial beat of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

After one argument, Jones drove off on a riding mower in search of a drink because Wynette had taken his car keys to keep him from carousing. Years earlier, married to his second wife, he had also sped off in a mower in search of a drink. Jones referred to his mowing days in the 1996 release, "Honky Tonk Song."

His drug and alcohol abuse grew worse in the late '70s, and Jones had to file for bankruptcy in 1978. A manager had started him on cocaine, hoping to counteract his boozy, lethargic performances, and Jones was eventually arrested in Jackson, Miss., in 1983 on cocaine possession charges. He agreed to perform a benefit concert and was sentenced to six months probation.

"In the 1970s, I was drunk the majority of the time," Jones wrote in his memoir. "If you saw me sober, chances are you saw me asleep."

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